Making More With Less Water

August 25, 2015 03:45 PM
 

Reliable access to water is crucial for the world’s farmers to raise crops or livestock. The United
Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization estimates global agriculture accounts for about 70% of all water withdrawals from aquifers or surface sources, with the share even higher, at 80%, in the U.S. As the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase, the effects of climate change will deepen, resulting in rising average temperatures and more frequent droughts and floods. Under these conditions, farmers’ ability to obtain needed water will be under increased pressure due to competition from industrial, residential/urban and energy users.

Based on projections from three global climate models, the southern Great Plains and Southwest face the highest probability of water shortages by 2060. According to the 2013 USDA Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey, states west of the Mississippi River account for about 80% of the irrigated acres, roughly the same
region where the water stress is projected to be the greatest under climate change. Much of that irrigated land draws on the massive Ogallala aquifer, which runs under eight states from west Texas to eastern Wyoming. A Kansas State University study estimates the aquifer will be 69% depleted by 2060, assuming current use trends continue.

In addition to strong demand for water for irrigation in these regions, which might increase under climate change because of reduced snow storage and greater evapotranspiration during the growing season, other components of water demand in the region are growing as well. Between 2000 and 2010, the population in western states grew by 13.8%, which puts increased pressure on urban/residential demand for water in the region.

Also, increased use of water for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to free oil and natural gas from deeply buried shale layers creates additional water demand, especially in the West and Great Plains. Of the 18 U.S. states where fracking is taking place, 13 are in this region, and 55% of such wells are in states that have experienced
severe droughts in recent years. As a result of the fracking revolution, those states are also attracting more people to fill jobs, thus increasing residential demand for water.

It will take a concerted effort to avert this approaching crisis, taking advantage of innovative mechanisms and practices that improve water use efficiency. Community- or regional-based examples include:

  • promoting regional conservation alliances that provide benefits to farmers for adopting water conserving practices, thus preserving water for other residents of the watershed.
  • creating exchanges to facilitate investment in modern water infrastructure in small cities and towns that can’t attract private sector equity.
  • encouraging development of environmental markets.
  • developing new mechanisms for storing and retaining water.

Farmers need to be mindful of water use and adjust practices as needed. For example, Steve Olson of Plainview, Texas, and Annie Dee from Aliceville, Ala., have adopted strip-till and no-till practices respectively. Dee has also installed water storage facilities on her farm. These steps help conserve water, enabling them to produce healthy crops when their neighbors’ fields are stricken by drought.

More farmers need to follow Olson’s and Dee’s examples. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 173 million acres—or 62%—of U.S. tillable acres receive some type of conservation tillage practice. If these practices can be adopted more widely, farmers will be able to do more with less water—and still show a profit.

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