This World Water Day, Don’t Leave Farmers Behind

by Robin Madel

Published: 3/22/19, Last updated: 3/26/19

Today is World Water Day, a time to reflect on the vital importance of water. This year’s theme “Leaving no one behind” has us thinking about farmers, who, in the struggle to ensure everyone has access to abundant, clean water, sometimes do get left behind. Forty out of 50 state water managers say they expect water shortages in some portion of their states in the next 10 years. Climate change will exacerbate those shortages.  In negotiations for increasingly tight water resources, cities, growth and development often win out over farmers and agriculture.

How Farmers Rely on Water

Most farmers rely on rainwater (also known as ‘green water’) to water their crops. Predictable supplies of rainwater have been as much a part of farming as access to arable land and seeds that produce consistently year after year. Unfortunately, farmers’ past experiences are no match for the new challenges they face as the climate changes. The predictability of rainwater has been hampered by new precipitation patterns, and models that help determine where, when and how much rain will fall don’t always hold true.

To increase their productivity and success, many farmers have increasingly turned to irrigation (also known as ‘blue water’) to meet their water needs more predictably. Irrigation made farming in the arid American West a viable endeavor. Flying over the middle parts of the country, the sight of green, circular fields created by center-pivot sprinklers is common. Yet even irrigation water is no longer predictably available, as supplies dwindle and water resource managers allocate less and less to farmers and more to constantly expanding development.

Climate Change Leaves Farmers Uncertain About Water

Climate change brings water extremes, from droughts to floods, and in both cases, farmers often take the biggest hit. Right now, farmers in Nebraska and Iowa, among other states, are witnessing the high cost of historic flooding that is devastating their fields and livestock.

From 2012 to 2017, California endured the other extreme – a severe, statewide drought. The state was faced with hard decisions about where to allocate their limited water resources. Many farmers who were denied surface water allocations, turned instead to groundwater to irrigate their crops. Now, as a result of all the users “dipping into the well,” many aquifers in the state have dropped to unsustainably low levels.

Even with the end of that drought and generous rains in the two years since, many aquifers remain below pre-drought levels. It is tempting to go back to business as usual and loosen the rules on water use, and indeed many California residents are questioning the continued need for lawn watering restrictions. However, there are many who understand the water needs of the state’s many farmers, and who therefore adhere to the restrictions that will, in time, allow the aquifers to recharge.

What Farmers Can Do About Climate Change’s Effects on Water

Farmers have to adjust to climate change and its impact on water by rethinking what they plant and where. Regenerative agriculture offers a set of sustainable agricultural practices that help retain water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture. Farmers also need to invest in the most efficient irrigation technology they can to minimize their demand on stressed water supplies.

What Eaters Can Do to Support Farmers and Agriculture

When people waste food, they also waste all the resources required to produce that food, including water. Consumers respect the water required to grow food by not wasting that food.

Consumers can eat less meat. Livestock – especially beef – takes a lot of water to produce because of all the feed required, and that feed is often made from irrigated corn and soy. Meatless Monday offers a way to reduce meat consumption and all its inputs automatically by 15 percent, just by eating meat one less day a week.

Those who water lawns in drought-prone areas can be smart about their watering habits and prioritize water for farmers over maintaining emerald green lawns.

Given the expected water shortages coming our way, we will all need to be efficient, thoughtful and cooperative. If we are, we’ll have enough for everyone. If we recognize the tremendous bounty farmers supply us with and prioritize our food security along with our water security, we can move into the future together with plenty of shared resources.

Did You Know?

There’s a big difference between how industrial agriculture and regenerative farming affect water resources. Runoff from industrial operations pollutes rivers and lakes with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous which hurt wildlife and cost municipalities millions. Smaller, regenerative farms do the opposite, locking soils and nutrients in fields.
Learn more about how industrial agriculture affects water and sustainable farming protects it.

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