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Water Problems Creep Across the U.S.

March 28, 2009
By: Charles Johnson, Farm Journal Editor

More than ever, water is the tension bar between agriculture and society. Urban centers desperately need more of it to satisfy an increasing population. Farmers require it to produce the food for all those people.

With the Earth's water supply finite but demands for it ever escalating, conflicts about water are becoming commonplace. Farm Journal is committed to covering agriculture's role in this clash. The story below about water problems on farms in eastern Colorado is the first in what will be an ongoing series that promises to touch every corner of the nation.

Caught in a devastating three-year drought, state and federal water agencies in California say they will cut deliveries to farmers in much of the San Joaquin Valley by at least 85% this year. That will idle land and result in 40,000 lost jobs and $1.5 billion in income, says Richard Howitt, chair of the Agriculture and Resource Economics Department at University of California–Davis. In addition, the nation's food security could be compromised because that region produces half our fruits, nuts and vegetables, along with other crops, such as cotton, wheat and potatoes.

The Ogallala Aquifer, which supports millions of acres of crops in eight Plains states, continues to decline. From the late 1940s, when farmers began irrigating in the Texas Panhandle, until 1980, portions of the aquifer dropped 100' and will fall another 100' by 2020, says Jim Goeke, University of Nebraska hydrogeologist. In Nebraska, the Department of Natural Resources recently issued a preliminary ruling that the Lower Platte River Basin appears "fully appropriated.” That could lead to a moratorium on new irrigation wells.

Texas, now in the midst of a long-term drought killing both crops and cattle, faces big problems. Nearly the entire state is in some stage of drought, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor maps. A new report by Susan Combs, Texas state comptroller, projects the state's popu-lation will double to more than 46 million by 2060, boosting water demand by about 27%. The water shortage could cost Texans about $9 billion next year and more than $98 billion by 2060, the report says. Combs calls for new water management strategies to deal with the crisis.

The Southeast, after several dry years, is no longer assured of consistent rainfall. That puts the city of Atlanta and its fast-growing suburbs in conflict with farmers as well as surrounding states. Even oystermen on Florida's Gulf Coast complained as fresh water supply dwindled in Apalachicola Bay, which produces 90% of the state's renowned oysters. In February, Georgia's Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed 300 people, including farmers, to 10 regional water planning boards to monitor the situation.

Shortage of water isn't the only difficulty facing agriculture. Quality is an issue in many watersheds and streams across the country. North Carolinians, among others, deal with ongoing battles regarding hog lagoons. Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have had to change management practices to rehabilitate its water, long important for fishing and recreation. Florida's farmers and ranchers are dealing with stringent environmental regulations designed to protect sensitive wildlife habitat. In many other areas, farmers and ranchers are devising ways to protect watersheds and lakes with innovative fencing for livestock and conservation tillage for crops.

With our new series, we at Farm Journal will not only outline the problems but pledge to also look for answers that can help farmers and ranchers overcome this threat to their livelihoods and legacies. Technology already offers some possibilities: irrigation refinements that reduce water usage and drought-tolerant hybrids, to name just two.

Water is the overriding concern for farmers, ranchers and society as a whole. Without workable solutions, everyone loses. Share your thoughts and let us know about water

issues in your area. We want to hear from you.


Colorado's Water War

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Early Spring 2009

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