Monday, February 11, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere -- Just Not Where We Need It

Water is our most precious resource. Life on earth requires it. Agriculture would not exist without it.

The amount of water on this planet is basically constant. We generally don’t create it or use it up. We use it for our purposes.

We sometimes contaminate our water so that it is unusable. However, the natural hydrologic cycle can cleanse that water through evaporation, condensation, and precipitation to make it usable again.

The issue is location. Is the water where we need it, when we need it, and in a usable form? Is it available in the correct quantities? Is there too much, or too little?

We can move water from one location to another. If we utilize the natural properties of water and gravity, it moves itself. If we move it uphill, it costs us energy – either to pump it or to haul it.

Competing demands for available water is an issue in many areas. People require water daily for drinking, bathing, watering lawns and plants and for other purposes. Manufacturing industries require water in various processes. Agriculture requires water for growing crops and for sustaining livestock. Water is being used everywhere.

As population grows the demand for water grows proportionally. Not only does the increase in population require more for drinking and other personal purposes, it creates demand for more manufactured goods and for more food. Growing demand by each use creates competing interests that bid for existing water. Rainfall is free, but water located in the right place, at the right time and in usable form is not. We must pay to get it there.

How do we balance the competing demands for our water resources? Is it something that must be left to market forces to determine? Who pays for developing new infrastructure for capturing or transporting water? How do we determine the allocation of those costs?

Droughts in various parts of the world that are unaccustomed to them have heightened the awareness of water as a growing concern. Both the Southeastern U.S. and the Western U.S. have faced droughts in the past year. Will concern over available water supplies force a reallocation among the competing concerns so that agriculture, the number one user of water in the west, will lose out to the cities? There has already been talk of farmers selling their water allocations to cities.

If population pressures force water costs to a level that agricultural concerns choose to sell their water to cities, what will be the impact to agricultural producers elsewhere? Will we see a further concentration of agriculture on arid lands that are productive only through supplemental irrigation? What will be the impact on the aquifers and reservoirs that supply that irrigation water?

There is a lot of talk among certain groups of pushing agriculture toward less intensive, more “environmentally friendly,” sustainable forms such as grass-fed beef and non-irrigated production systems. With a growing population demanding more-and-more food, how will that be possible?

The questions are many and the answers are few. Water is the root issue. Agriculture remains at the center of the storm. It is blamed for the problem and looked to for solutions. The level of turmoil is high.

With turmoil comes opportunity. Agricultural Experiment Stations, crop science companies, hydrologic engineers, and many others will have a tremendous task ahead of them. Genetically engineering plants to make them more drought tolerant is one possible solution. Water capture and recycling systems will become increasingly important. Re-thinking water use – such as for watering lawns -- is another area where we will likely see adjustment. Transportation of water from locations of abundance to areas of need will become more common. We may even see water-use zoning restrictions in the future.

The time is quickly approaching when water will be on everyone’s mind. It is a resource that is both abundant and scarce. How we manage it will determine our future.

Water. It's what makes this blue island of life unique.


Sue said...

Sometimes human activities that don't use water themselves (or at least not significantly) can have unintended consequences on the distribution of water.

In the Commonwealth of Kentucky where I live, the rapidly growing urban areas, such as Lexington, depend upon river water for their municipal needs for households, industry. Like many urban areas, those in Kentucky are outgrowing their current means of extracting water from the rivers. Dams, pumping and treatment facilities have not been invested in comensurate with population and industry growth. Ironically, at the same time that the urban areas are looking for ways to get more water out of Kentucky's rivers, strip-mining practices, especially mountain top removal, are radically changing the path, direction and constancy of water flows in the streams that feed those rivers.

In the past, urban residents have paid little attention to the complaints of coalfield residents about strip-mining practices -- it was out of sight, and out of mind. But the demand for cheaper energy has been accelerating and the removing of forest cover along along with it. Through the medium of water, distant populations may be forced to pay more attention to extractive practices they cannot immediately see.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I think that water-conserving farming practices have considerable merit, but will deliver the most significant benefit when combined with other conservation practices. In particular, I see mass-localization of agriculture as important.
If suburbanites begin (again) regarding their yards as fields rather than lawns, homes could become significant positive actors in water management. As it stands, runoff from structures contributes to the load on stormwater management infrastructure, and greywater places further (and largely unnecessary) burden on wastewater treatment infrastructure.
If, instead that runoff and greywater were collected and used for onsite irrigation, the home would reduce demand on local infrastructure, while reducing the intensity of water demand in traditional agricultural areas, and reducing the need to transport produce over long distances.

Panhandle Poet said...

ERD: You do bring up an excellent point. It is likely that agriculture will basically split into two primary forms. 1) Large-scale commercial farming enterprises that supply a large portion of the commodities -- corn, wheat, soybeans, sugar producing plants, bio-fuel plants, etc. and 2) Small-scale micro-farms that produce much of our fruits and vegetables.

If we look far, far into the future, we might conceivably see nation-wide, or perhaps global zoning for agricultural and other enterprises. Within the urban landscapes we will see micro-agriculture -- greenhouses, personal gardens, high-rise closed-system production facilities, etc. There are advantages in transportation (which translates to energy use), nutrient and water recycling, etc. Land-use -- like water use -- will be a very important issue faced by governmental authorities in the coming years. I personally prefer to see market forces make such determinations within a framework of sensible guidance from governmental bodies. I am strongly opposed to centralized planning as envisioned by many.

The days of our "cheap" and abundant food supply in this country are threatened by the pressures from both environmental and energy concerns. One problem that we face as a country is the "ignorance" of the general population about agriculture. Most people are so far removed from food production that they do not understand all that goes into the products they find on the grocer's shelves. A tremendous amount of energy and resources go into producing that food. The fact that so much can be produced by so few is what allows our country to grow and flourish in so many other ways. Our industrial, service and technological labor forces are free to pursue their careers because the do not have to produce food. Such is not the case in less-developed countries.

As to mass-localization of agriculture -- that is already for the most part a reality. Urban sprawl has forced agriculture further and further from population centers. It also has contributed greatly to runoff control issues and infrastructure burden. When we change the natural contours of land and then pave it or place a structure on it, we often effectively destroy its ability to handle extreme weather events such as flooding or drought.

A question arises: Would it be better to have clearly defined, concentrated population centers based on nutrient, refuse, water and power infrastructure utilization, or would it be preferable to have a widely dispersed population in small estate-like enclaves that are essentially self-contained? Both ideas have been proposed (and incorporated into science-fiction). Again, I prefer to let market forces make the determination within a basic (but minimum) regulatory environment.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I think it's worth a moment for me to clarify what I mean by "mass-localization". Unlike our current trend of what I would term centralization, mass-localization would move activities back to individual homes.
The best example I can think of to illustrate mass-localization of agriculture in the last century is the Victory Garden. I've read that as much 40% of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the US during the early-to-mid 1940s were produced in these backyard and common-property gardens, as suburbanites and even city-dwellers were encouraged to grow food to support the war effort.
Like you, I believe that the market is capable of a great deal, when it is free to do so and when consumers are well-informed. I also think that water zoning, or something very similar to it may not be so far away. In certain drier parts of the country, urban water restrictions are loosened for property owners who grow edible plants in quantity. Also in the same vein of reasoning, communities that are now saturated with building are beginning to employ stormwater utility fees to finance current SW operations. In some cases, these fees are based upon the property's function or zoning, and its total impervious surface.

Sue said...

The discussion here reminds me of a wonderful book, that I had the pleasure of reviewing twenty years ago. J. Sholto Douglas and Robert A. de J. Hart, Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation, (see review in Rural Sociology, Vol. 52, no. 4. 1987). This book updates and expands an earlier volume by J. Russell Smith Tree Crops. Douglas and Hart provied detailed analysis to demonstrate that cultivated trees can provide products that substitute for many field crops (including grains used for flour), and produce many times more volume while requiring far less water and preventing soil erosion. A fascinating read and more relevant than ever.