July 8, 2015

Regulations tighten restrictions over water use for agricultural purposes, while technology and other innovations try to bring a degree of control over something it seems we can’t control.

By Barney Bernstein, Senior Associate

Mother Nature and agriculture have an ongoing love-hate relationship when it comes to water—there’s never the right amount at the right time or place you need it. But the real crisis is happening underground as we face a shortage in our underground water reserves, and that’s a problem not even Mother Nature can fix.

The water story for 2015 is feast or famine across the United States—while Californians are rationing water and fighting for access, the central and southeast states have been managing ravaging floodwaters. Farmers across the country are dealing with extremes: In the drought-stricken states out west, farmers are struggling to acquire enough water to keep their crops alive; but in Kansas the wet weather caused a significant delay in getting soybeans in the ground.

Drought is a leading culprit behind the dwindling amounts of surface water available to recharge ground water supplies. When rain doesn’t come, many farmers turn to irrigation, drawing ground water from aquifers; and in many regions of the country water is being drawn at a faster rate than it’s soaking back in.

The situation is downright dismal in California, now in its fourth consecutive year of drought. But even in the rain-blessed region of the central U.S., farmers are starting to face new regulations as state and local government monitor shrinking aquifers. Flooding rains will help, but that’s just a short-term boost to aquifers that have been steadily diminishing for decades.

Water is Everyone’s Business Now

We have reached the critical juncture where every agriculture company should be immersing themselves in the water issue, because it’s going to change the way people farm.

Ag is overwhelmingly the biggest consumer of freshwater resources and will continue to be as long as we have humans and animals to feed. On average, agriculture accounts for about 70% of freshwater use globally; and in California, that share climbs to 80%. While agriculture puts the greatest burden on water resources, this also means the agriculture industry has the greatest opportunity of anyone to make a substantial impact on water conservation.

Ag’s growing need for water really cannot be reversed as we face the demands of feeding a growing population. Efficiency is the name of the game now, and agriculture is under intense scrutiny to relieve some of the pressure the industry puts on our water supplies. We have no choice but to use water as efficiently as possible so we can make every last drop productive.

Farmers are implementing all kinds of practices to manage their water use.

  • A growing number of farmers are adopting cover crops, alternative crops, and/or conservation tillage to help the soil retain its moisture and protect it against high temperatures; and, more and more farmers are trying innovative technologies that use precision agriculture methods for managing water application.
  • Some farmers are partnering with water resource management entities to better manage their own use.
  • Farmers are embracing better technology and innovative solutions that help them get the most of the water they can access and squeeze out every last ounce that’s within their reach. These could include more efficient irrigation systems that deliver water more directly to the crop, or systems equipped with moisture sensors so farmers can apply only what’s needed rather than irrigate on a continuous schedule.
  • Corn traits are also available that allow the plant to make better use of water and cut yield losses during drought.
  • Seed companies are focusing on sorghum, an alternative feed grain with much greater drought tolerance than corn.
  • In many areas, farmers are incentivized to adopt practices and build structures that conserve water usage. In fact, the Farm Bill includes programs that offer financial and technical assistance to farmers who make conservation improvements on their land.

These methods, technologies, and policies won’t make a difference unless farmers understand them and put them into practice. There are upsides and downsides to all of these practices; and for many, this is a completely different way of thinking. Farmers will need agribusiness companies to help them weigh their options and determine what’s best for their situation. We’ve got a responsibility as an industry to help farmers understand new technologies available to them for water management, as well as understand and adhere to new water use regulations.

Preventing a Widespread Water Crisis

Water issues are complicated no matter where you are.

In California, the situation became very serious, very fast. Agriculture for decades has been exempt from water use reduction mandates, but that exemption was taken away last week. For the first time in 40 years, the state imposed mandatory limits for livestock and crop irrigation, a limit that puts restrictions on farmers with senior water rights. Desperate times call for unprecedented measures.

In the central valley of California, which produces more than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed by Americans, the soil is excellent but the lack of water is making the land almost worthless for growing crops. According to the California Farm Bureau, half a million acres were forced out of production last year because of water shortages, and that number will likely climb to 1 million acres in 2015.

The water situation is dire and contentious in California; and while a crisis may feel less imminent in other areas, so many of our nation’s aquifers are hurting:

  • The Mississippi Alluvial Aquifer, which sits underneath parts of Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and Louisiana, has declined one foot or more per year for the past 35 years.
  • The Colorado River Basin is dropping significantly, and lost volume equivalent to two Lake Meads (the largest U.S. water reservoir) in less than 10 years.
  • Drought in the Great Plains has put major pressure on the Ogallala Aquifer. A 2013 Kansas State University study predicted nearly three-quarters of the aquifer will be gone in 50 years if irrigation rates continue at the levels they are today.
  • Water regulation is a hot topic in South Carolina, with environmentalists enraged over agriculture’s unlimited access to freshwater resources. The relatively small farms of the region have always drawn water without restrictions, but the issue brought heated attention recently when a large potato farm relocated to the region and received permission to pump billions of gallons of water from the Edisto River for its operation. That farmer has since compromised, but the controversy has not gone away—it’s even stirred up legislators across the region.
  • In the vast Floridan Aquifer that sits below parts of the southeastern United States, the conversation seems heavily centered on storage to retain rain waters to replenish surface and groundwater. There is also controversy over preventing saltwater intrusion into the groundwater reserves—so it’s more of a water quality issue vs. a shortage.

We have a huge environmental responsibility to conserve freshwater resources, but there’s also the issue of protecting agriculture from being a target. Because we’re the biggest user, environmental groups (not to mention urban residents who aren’t allowed to water their lawns) naturally want to blame agriculture for water shortages.

As an industry we need to support cooperation to adopt conservation practices that can ease the pressure away from our aquifers. A growing majority of farmers are on board, but for those who are still reluctant, we need to encourage them to embrace changes in their operations and implement voluntary practices that ultimately can allow our groundwater supply to recharge.

Even small changes can have a huge impact. Consider the amount of water it takes a 1,000-acre corn farmer in Finney County, KS, to irrigate his field: Approximately 27,000 gallons of water are required per acre-inch. Assuming one inch of water per 24-hour turn of a center pivot, you’d have to draw 27 million gallons per day from the Ogallala Aquifer, or 18,750 gallons per minute, to cover the entire field; and even more in extreme heat and dry conditions.

If a farmer could cut back on irrigation—even by one day a week—by planting alternative crops, using drought-tolerant seed, testing soil moisture, or adopting other conservation practices, it could add up to significant water conservation during a growing season.

Entira Can Help

Whether you’ve been part of the conversation thus far or not, water is becoming a front-burner topic for all agribusiness companies. Entira has worked with companies seeking to develop solutions to address the global water crisis. We can help review the opportunities that make sense for your business, whether it’s supporting cover crops, or developing strategies to advise customers and provide services for making more efficient use of water. Contact me at bbernstein@entira.net if you’d like to learn more.