California almonds are becoming one of the world's favorite snacks and creating a multibillion-dollar bonanza for agricultural investors. But the crop extracts a staggering price from the land, consuming more water than all the showering, dish-washing and other indoor household water use of California's 39 million people.
A row of old motels and businesses line West 16th Street in Merced, calling little attention to the area during the daytime. But when the sun sets, the street comes alive with activity. Women wearing short skirts and ripped tights stand in the doorways of motel rooms. An open curtain in another room reveals a half-naked woman waiting inside.