Water Problems Creep Across the U.S.

March 28, 2009 06:14 AM

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

For Darrell and Cindy Johnston, 2002 was the turning point. The worst drought in memory shattered hopes of a profit on their farm in Erie, Colo.

"We didn't get any moisture. Snowpack was way down. We planted bone-dry. Crops sat waiting for rain. Water was allo-cated, and we had to decide which crops to irrigate. We burned our water up getting the crop up, then we were out of water. So we didn't have a crop,” Darrell says.

The future didn't look much better, either. Located on the Front Range just north of the Denver metropolitan area near I-25, with water supply both short and at a premium due to booming development, the Johnstons decided moving was their best option.

"When the drought hit, farms went from irrigated to dryland overnight. The problem in Erie is that the cities have control of the water and dictate how much we get. It's been going on for 10 years now,” Darrell says.

Though they had both grown up in the area, the Johnstons sold some of their more valuable land near the interstate. They bought land with a more assured water supply 70 miles away in Fort Morgan, Colo., using an Internal Revenue Service Section 1031 Exchange to postpone capital gains taxes. They grow corn and sugar beets on the 700 acres in Fort Morgan and wheat, barley and hay crops requiring less water on the original 2,700-acre farm, which is now managed by their 23-year-old son, Brandon.

"Buying land in Fort Morgan is the hardest decision we ever made. But if we're going to farm, we have to have water. When the 2002 drought hit, it was eye-opening to know we did not have water to irrigate,” Cindy says.

Lots of other Colorado farmers are seeing their worlds rocked in much the same fashion. In addition to the competition for water with cities on the Front Range, eastern Colorado farmers in the Republican River Basin and the South Platte River Basin have their own serious problems.

Four hundred irrigation wells in the Republican River Basin were recently shut down to comply with a settlement involving a Kansas lawsuit that requires certain flow levels. In the South Platte River Basin, pumping from as many as 4,000 wells has been limited or curtailed due to a plan to recharge the river's water and comply with the Endangered Species Act, says James Pritchett, a Colorado State University ag economist working on water issues.

"Crop acreage has gone from 3 million to 2½ million. We're likely to lose 250,000 acres in the South Platte, where we're at 1 million acres now,” Pritchett says. "We've been depleting the aquifer at an unsustainable rate. Within one generation, we'll have to find a way to continue agriculture in that area with less water.”

So far, farmers losing wells have gotten little compensation. "On the South Platte, they are not compensated. They are literally high and dry. On the Republican, these are voluntary measures through CREP [Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program] and EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentives Program], a token compensation nowhere close to what they could make from full production,” says Mark Sponsler, executive director of the Colorado Corn Growers Association.

Those economics won't pencil out long-term for farmers caught in the 21st century water wars. The Johnstons enjoy farming their new Fort Morgan land but warily eye what's happening to other producers.

"I just cannot comprehend that government can say, ‘Sorry, you're done, too bad.' A judge held the fate of all those people's lives,” Cindy says.

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at cjohnson@farmjournal.com.

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