April 27 – May 3, 2015
Introduction by Sandra Postel of Global Water Policy Project
Every day, we “eat” at least a thousand times more water than we drink. A slice of bread takes more than 10 gallons of water to make; a typical glass of milk, when we include the water to grow the grain fed to the cow, some 53 gallons. Today, the thirsty business of growing crops is a primary reason earth’s rivers are running dry, aquifers are being depleted, and lakes are shrinking before our eyes.
So the question is, how do we provide healthy diets for all without going deeper into water debt?
This question is particularly important in places like the western United States, where agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of water consumption. Adopting innovative ways to improve farm and ranch productivity while reducing water use will be key to solving our growing water challenge.
Fortunately, there are numerous ways to reduce waste and inefficiency in our food system, from farm to table. By getting smarter about how we manage water and by shrinking the water footprint of our diets, we can return water to depleted rivers and freshwater ecosystems.
Sandra Postel is founder of the Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. In 2010 she was appointed Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, where she serves as lead water expert for the Society’s freshwater efforts.
Sandra is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater restoration campaign undertaken by National Geographic and its partners, and being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.
“Water use” — a common topic of discussion. Especially in the western parts of the U.S. where agriculture accounts for up to 80 percent of water use. In this week’s Food List, we investigate different ways for food production to be water smart.
Its important to keep in mind the water cycle and ways to recharge our reserves. We can easily imagine plentiful water sources. In agriculture, new and innovative methods are becoming more and more popular to manage use. Especially in response to the drought in the west where irrigation efficiency is one of the greatest challenges to resilient farmers.
How are farmers being more mindful of water? Some methods are target specific, such as drip irrigation. Others look to nature for answers. Holistic management, such as keyline designs, rotation range feeding, and dry farming, mimic systems within nature. There are many progressive ways to protect our water resources.
While you may be aware of all the water you are using directly, you may not have taken into full consideration your virtual water consumption. Within the concept of a water footprint, water use is measured in terms of the volume of water consumed, evaporated, and/or polluted. Established by the Water Footprint Network and created by Dr. Arjen Hoekstra, our individual and collective water footprint measurements give us a better understanding of our consumption patterns with conservation in mind.
Are you one of those people who suffers through 10-second showers in the name of water and energy conservation? Grist and the planet thank you for the nice gesture — every drop counts. But it turns out really saving water has more to do with what’s on your plate than what’s coming out of your faucet. With prolonged and extreme droughts cropping up left and right, thanks to YOU KNOW WHO (pssssst anthropogenic climate change), small changes at your table can actually have major impacts on water savings and our food system at large.
Water in the West explores an option to increasing water storage capacity that is not as visibly striking (and thus often overlooked), but much cheaper than dams – groundwater recharge. California’s drought comes on top of decades of overuse of water in the state, and increasing groundwater availability is essential in coming dry years. Groundwater recharging has a number of advantages, including lower permitting, construction, and operation costs, less water loss to evaporation, reduced energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, greater distribution across the state, restoration of groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and more local control over water resources. Moreover, it has the capacity to store an incredible amount of water. California’s Department of Water Resources estimates the total groundwater capacity to be somewhere between 850 million and 1.3 billion acre-feet (with surface storage from all the major reservoirs in California making up less than 50 million acre-feet). However, despite its advantages, there is still a gap between funding and demand for groundwater recharging, and localities will need support to fully implement groundwater storage techniques.
An interview with Dr. Peter Gleick
Using and managing resources properly can provide for sustainable solutions in agriculture as well as reduce negative impact on the climate. By responsibly managing resources in the agriculture, we can also help feed the population and reduce inefficiency and waste in the production of our food. Leading innovator on global water and climate issues, Peter Gleick talks about how we can achieve these goals.
Douglas Gayeton: Are we doing a good job with managing water resources in the use of producing food in agriculture?
Peter Gleick: We could do a lot better. I would argue that agriculture is doing both a good job and a bad job in the way it uses water. We’ve done a good job in the sense that we could in theory feed everybody on the planet, and we’ve done a bad job in the sense that we don’t feed everybody adequately on the planet. Much of the water agriculture uses is done inefficiently and wastefully. We could grow a lot more food with a lot less water.
Douglas Gayeton: What would you suggest that we look at in our own country to better use water in agriculture?
Peter Gleick: In the 20th Century, the focuses in the water world was on building more infrastructures, more dams, and more aqueducts, tap another ground water well into an aquifer, and take more water out of the environment for human use. That path, which I call “The hard path for water”, brought enormous benefits to us, but it also brought enormous costs. We’ve begun to understand the ecological implications of taking water, as well as the impacts on our rivers, groundwater aquifers, and lakes that are over-pumped and overused.
In the 21st century, we’re going to have to do things differently. The good news is that there are solutions to our water problems. Perhaps the most important one is moving away from the idea of water as a constant supply issue and begin thinking about the way in which we use water, and how we can do what we want with less of it. If we could grow the food we want, make the semiconductors, the clothes and the goods and services we consume with less water, then we can have our cake and eat it, too. We can do the things we want but reduce our impact on the hydrologic cycle, on our rivers, lakes and streams.
Douglas Gayeton: You’re talking about water being a renewable resource, but for the most part I think of water as being almost like every other aspect in the agriculture, which is essentially an extractive form of production. Can you give us examples of water being used in a renewable fashion?
Peter Gleick: I wrote a paper a few years ago called “Peak Water” in which a colleague and I described three different definitions of peak water: peak renewable water, peak non-renewable water and peak ecological water. Peak renewable water is the idea that even though water is mostly a renewable resource in our rivers and streams, we use it up. There are some water resources, like ground water resources, that are non-renewable. We use them faster than nature recharges them. And when we pump groundwater faster than nature recharges it we use it up, just like an oil reservoir.
Much of the water that humans use worldwide comes from non-renewable groundwater resources, and that’s not sustainable in the long run either. Long term sustainable management of water means using renewable water in a fashion that doesn’t affect its sustainability in the long run. It means not over-pumping groundwater and not using up a nonrenewable resource.
Dr. Peter Gleick is a leading scientist, innovator, and communicator on global water and climate issues. He co-founded and leads the Pacific Institute in Oakland, one of the most innovative, independent non-governmental organizations addressing the connections between the environment and global sustainability. He is the author of many scientific papers and nine books, including the influential series The World’s Water and Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water from Island Press, as well as A Twenty-First Century U.S. Water Policy, released in 2012.
That was my feeling when I drank a glass this week from De Smet Diary in Bosque Farms, New Mexico, a small town nestled in the middle of Rio Grande Valley.
With his wife Erica, Mike De Smet, a mid-thirties, third-generation farmer, owns and operates the state’s only Grade A dairy farm and bottling facility for raw milk.
After locals had come by to stock up — at $10 a gallon, it’s not cheap — De Smet would load up his truck and transport that day’s bottled production up to Albuquerque, about 20 miles north. His milk sells out every week.
De Smet Dairy is one of six western farm operations profile in a new report just released by the National Young Farmers Coalition that showcases how these young farmers are adapting to drought and water stress, and raising productivity on their lands.
The six farmers live in either the Colorado or Rio Grande river basins, the two largest river systems of the Southwest, but each suffers from excessive diversions, groundwater depletion and long-term droughts.
The Colorado Basin alone irrigates some 15% of US produce overall and 80% of winter vegetables. So we all, to some degree, “eat” the Colorado — and thus have a stake in how well farmers can adapt to the drought-prone, water-stressed world now upon us.
Though the farmers profiled differ in their approaches to building resilience on their land and in their operations, and they represent a small, non-random sample, a few important themes jump out.
First, restoring health to soils is key. Heavily compacted, nutrient poor, exposed soils do not store water well. So enhancing the capacity of soils to hold moisture is crucial for every western farmer interested in weathering dry spells and reduced water allocations.
For Brendon Rockey, a 36-year-old farmer in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, a groundwater-dependent region in the headwaters of the Rio Grande, the solution came in the form of an age-old practice: planting “green manure” cover crops. Instead of rotating in barley after potatoes, Rockey eliminated the barley in favor of a strategic mix of ten different cover crops that kept the soil protected from wind and evaporation, losses, fixed nitrogen and thus naturally fertilized the soil, and produced flowers that brought predatory insects that kept the non-beneficial bugs at bay.
The cover crops not only reduced Rockey’s groundwater use and pumping costs, they helped improve the quality of his potato harvest and lowered fertilizer and pesticide costs.
“Farmers need to become biologists again,” Rockey told the NYFC.
Second, farmers just starting out often do not have the capital to purchase water-saving equipment or implement conservation methods, so support for irrigation technology upgrades can be a big help.
For Jason Walker, a 31-year-old grain farmer north of Tucson, Arizona, assistance from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) helped him upgrade irrigation ditches and precision-level a portion of his fields. The field-leveling alone was estimated to improve water efficiency by 20-30 percent — a gain in water productivity that could make a big difference as water allocations from the Colorado River become less secure for Arizona farmers.
An NRCS grant also helped High Wire Hops, located on the west slope of the Rockies in Paonia, Colorado, to purchase and install an efficient drip system to irrigate its hops, a crop in high demand by regional breweries. For its water supply, High Wire draws from the North Fork of the Gunnison River, a tributary to Colorado River. The drip system helps meet the hops’ water needs with minimal withdrawals from the river.
Third, a willingness to buck convention, try new approaches, and adapt as they go seems to be an ingredient to success.
Confronting drought and tightening water allocations in the Rio Grande Valley, Mike DeSmet, the raw-milk dairy farmer, has laser-leveled his fields and moved to minimum- or no-till planting to conserve the moisture in his soil.
During my visit to DeSmet’s farm this week, I saw that he’s also trying something outside the norm: planting a small section of his acreage in kochia rather than grass. A drought-resistant, high-protein forage crop, kochia has a feed-value slightly lower than alfalfa, (hence its nickname, the “poor-man’s alfalfa”), but better palatability than many grasses.
Kochia’s ability to thrive on six inches of annual rainfall could make it a valued forage crop in the dry Southwest. In DeSmet’s view, it’s worth a try to make a scarce water stretch further as he works to grow his dairy-cow herd to 100 head over the next five years.
With agriculture consuming the lion’s share of the West’s water, innovative ways to improve farm productivity while reducing water use will be key to solving the region’s growing water challenges.
As Kate Greenberg, the NYFC’s Durango, Colorado-based Western Organizer, and co-author of the report, put it, “irrigated agriculture is central to our communities in the Southwest. We need to keep it productive, vibrant, and viable…[T]hese farmers are helping lead the way.”
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.
Within the context of historic drought and increasing urban demand, “Resilient” highlights the work of innovative farmers and ranchers across western Colorado who are adapting to a drier climate. They are building soil, enhancing irrigation efficiency, and saving water, all while forging resilience in the face of great change.
Drip irrigation is a system of plastic tubing with sophisticated drippers spaced at a set distance that enables the slow, precise and targeted application of water and nutrients to a specific location at the root of the plant in a way which maximizes water utilization while preventing water evaporation, runoff, and waste.
Farmers in Israel’s Negev Desert deal with water scarcity high soil salinity and harsh climate conditions.
“Moses got water from a stone” says Naty Barok of Netafim, “But he forgot to share this precious technology with us, so we had to invent drip irrigation.”
In 1965 Simcha Blass and Netafim invented the world’s first drip irrigation system. 60 percent of Israel is desert. With water scarcity now a national crisis, this desert region could not survive without drip irrigation. It enables farmers here to be more efficient and grow better crops with the limited resources (water, land, energy, manpower) they have. Naty feels that drip irrigation allows for “sustainable productivity,” enabling farmers to maximize food production with the lowest environmental impact. The only way to overcome this crisis is through innovation and technology, and drip irrigation is at the front of innovation + technology.
To fully utilize the potential of drip irrigation systems in the Negev Desert, net houses are used. Net houses help expand the growing season on a farm, reduce moisture loss to evaporation, protect against invasive plant species and pests, and reduce and control radiation for some crops.
Tucked away in San Mateo County, California there is a 1000 acre ranch, dedicated to raising livestock holistically. The Markegard Family recognize themselves as stewards of their land. Within the Markegard Family’s holistic applications is the use of the Keyline design. By digging deep contour lines and swales into specific selected areas, groundwater can recharge, and runoff and erosion decreases. As this video depicts, the Keyline design uses natural systems, such as rainwater collection in ponds, to encourage minimal interference and natural abundance through a closed loop system.
Dry farming involves growing crops without irrigation to supplement rainfall. This results in lower development costs for the farm. No wells need to be dug, no water rights or permits are needed, and there is no need for irrigation lines. The result, a more enhanced flavor, but lower yield — the yield is related to the amount of water and fertilizer used.
Greg and Patrick first plant their early girls in mid-April. The starts are only watered once or twice then left on their own, though weeds and pests must still be managed. I ask Greg if he dry farms to conserve water, save streams, and preserve salmon habitat and he says: “There are all kinds of ecological and environmental reasons to dry farm, but people pay for flavor — and even then it’s hard to get them to pay enough. I’ve seen a ton of farmers irrigate through the daylight hours in 40 mph winds, losing half their water to wind. I’ve also seen Fish and Game shut down farms for salmon protection in streams which could never support a native population.”
An Interview with David Beckman
In many cases, more water is drawn from sources than can naturally be replaced, causing detrimental imbalances in the system. Water is key for all life and is especially crucial in agriculture, making this an important, yet complicated issue. Beckman explains some roots of the water issue, some complications, and some possible solutions as we look ahead to a future that necessitates more sustainable water us.
Douglas Gayeton: What are we doing when we’re “recharging the water supply”?
David Beckman: If we are using water in the city, on a farm, or in a business, that water is coming from somewhere. It’s coming from an aquifer, a lack, a river, or sometimes from rainfall. Keeping that supply recharged means that we’re keeping a balance between what we’re using and what the available supply is.
Sometimes, to recharge a water supply we physically bring water into an area and inject that water into the groundwater basic or put it in a reservoir.
Douglas Gayeton: Why do we have challenges in places like the Imperial Valley in Southern California, which draws its water from Lake Mead, without recharging the water supply?
David Beckman: We’re out of balance, taking more water than what is coming back into that source from rain or the hydrology in the area.
One interesting concept is called “Safe Yield.” The idea of Safe Yield is that you take no more from a water source than is naturally going back into that water source every year.
In order to do that, we have to recognize that we’re not able to use water in the same way that we did when population was smaller and when there was more available water in the West. We’re experiencing drought or experiencing the effects of climate change and the consequence for water is that in many of our communities water is, and will become, more scarce. If we’re going to keep things in balance, we have to find ways of doing things with water without using so much of it.
Douglas Gayeton: Do you think better water pricing would be a solution to the Tragedy of the Commons effect that’s visible in water use?
David Beckman: Water pricing is a very complicated piece of the equation. It certainly has a role to play. Without water, humans can’t live, animals can’t live, plants can’t live, for the most part. It is true that one of the reasons that water is wasted is because the price of water is out of balance with the value of water. It’s too cheap for the amount of time and effort it takes to create the water supply and bring it to a farm, business, or home.
On the other hand, since we need water, there has to be some amount of water that’s available to everybody that is not priced for profit or priced at unreasonable levels. We need to carefully look at the supply and the pricing question, but it’s a complicated issue because nobody can do without water.
Douglas Gayeton: People suggest greenhouses, cheap irrigation, sewage recycling, desalination, and better water pricing, but do you have other ideas about how to better steward this resource?
David Beckman: We need to focus on efficiency – creating the same product, doing the things we need to do, but doing it with less. Agriculture uses somewhere between 60% and 80% of all of the water that’s consumed in the country. You can’t solve the water supply problem if you take agriculture off the table.
Water recycling can also make a significant dent. That’s the idea of taking polluted water say, a waste stream from a sewage treatment plant and, instead of discharging that somewhat cleaned-up water into a river and experiencing the cost to do the clean-up, you clean it up and reuse it. Sometimes, you can reuse it for non-potable uses. For example, the water used for a green space in a town or a park does not have to be the same quality for consumption. With those approaches you’re reducing pollution, creating “new water supply,” and providing the opportunity to create the same products with less of the water input.
Douglas Gayeton: Is there such thing as a local water system, like a local food system?
David Beckman: Local water systems are a wave of the future. When we talk about a local water system, what we’re really talking about is decentralizing the water supply and, in some cases, treatment. In other words, we’re not all going to be connected necessarily to the sewage treatment plant or get water from the water supplier. Or maybe we will be connected, but we’ll have resilient additional option.
It’s similar to solar power. Water is more complicated and it’s further behind, but it’s possible to capture rain-water and use it for at least some things around your house. Green buildings are doing this with large tanks that capture water and sometimes even clean it.
David Beckman is Executive Director of the Pisces Foundation, an environmental philanthropy in San Francisco. The Foundation’s current areas of focus include environmental education, water resources, and climate and energy issues. David formerly was a Senior Attorney and the Director of the national Water Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School.
From farm to table, we all have a role to play to increase our water efficiency. Sandra Postel gives us some ideas of how to reduce our water footprint
COMPLETE this online form and JOIN partners just like you in a vibrant community-driven conversation that will help CHANGE our FOOD SYSTEM.