A Call to Farms
As we celebrate the bounty of the season, pitchforks and storm clouds are gathering throughout the country and the nation’s capital over agriculture and water policy and the potential collisions between the two.
On the water quantity side, some of the fresh wrangling is over subsidies that distort the real cost of water, ground water mining that depletes ancient aquifer fossil water, and water footprints of certain agriculturally-related biofuels, such as corn-based ethanol. Some of these are long simmering, with dire consequences for local and regional ecosystems and economies, but they’re gaining steam in a climate of increasing budget constraints and environmental/climate-related stressors.
Even with the finger-pointing, there’s also hand-clapping for individual acts of stewardship and widespread deployment of promising technologies. Drip and center-pivot (big wheel) irrigation, hi-tech laser leveling of fields, and in-place soil moisture sensors are all helping to save more and waste less. Crop selection and biotechnology are also making progress in the quest to reduce water and energy needs.
With respect to water conservation practices, I saw a wide range on the range in Arizona when I was Director of Water Quality and working closely with the state’s Agriculture Department. Some farmers and ranchers, growing commodities such as cotton, cattle, and citrus, were using their water allocations sparingly and looking for ways to cut costs and impacts on ecosystems (while also facing fair questions such as “Why are you choosing to produce such water-intensive crops in such dry places in the first place?”) I also saw sincere efforts to balance competing interests, such as saving water vs. using water for dust suppression and air quality protection. It underscored the need for alternative, non-water solutions to keep dust from flying.
On the water quality side, issues and confrontations are gaining greater intensity. Many municipal and environmental groups and agencies are pointing to agriculture and calling for significant progress on nutrient pollution under the Clean Water Act and a “fairer sharing” of the regulatory load.
Soon to surface: a detailed report with an urban water perspective on controlling nitrogen and phosphorus. The report, being prepared by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies with support from the Turner Foundation and the Water Environment Federation, will argue that controls on agricultural sources of nutrients are more effective and cost-effective than current strategies focused primarily on just municipal point sources.
This will add to the other, previous reports advocating for progress on agricultural, suburban, and urban sources of nutrient pollution into great waterbodies such as the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake, Everglades, Mississippi River/Gulf, Colorado River, Bay/Delta, Puget Sound, and beyond.
There’s also ongoing policy work on a broader, national and global level. Solutions from the Land (SFL), www.sfldialogue.net, a nonprofit educational organization, is developing recommendations for more sustainable farming, forestry, and land use with a long term, 2050 view. It’s co-chaired by A.G. Kawamura, former Secretary of California Food and Agriculture, and Tom Lovejoy of the Heinz Center and includes a wide collection of representatives from agriculture, academia, NGOs (including yours truly from the U.S. Water Alliance), and industry. It’s striving for more integrated and holistic approaches to meeting human and ecosystem requirements.
A hungry planet, with 7 billion people today, and 9.6 billion expected in 2050, will need to squeeze out “more crop per drop” and no doubt, more “profit per crop” as Steve Maxwell points out in his book, “The Future of Water”.
Water makes the world go ’round but food, feed, fiber, and fuel keep it growing and smiling. I’m giving thanks for that and hoping the connections between sustainable water and agriculture continue to strengthen. U.S. Water Alliance will do its part to connect the two and shed light on policies and actions that can put food on the table while protecting our water supplies today, tomorrow, and beyond.