The U.S. agricultural industry, particularly farming, consumes a vast amount of the nation’s available fresh water and therefore demands that strict attention be paid to this use.
The most recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) survey on water use estimates that withdrawals for irrigation accounted for 37% of all water use in the country; 67% if use for thermoelectric cooling are excluded from the average. This comes to 128 billion gallons over water per day for farming.
Recent droughts across the U.S. and growing legal concerns over water rights accentuate the growing issue of water scarcity and the need for better resource management. Examining these significant facts about water consumption and farming can help draw more attention to the importance of responsible water use and encourage better understanding.
1. Drip Irrigation Most Resource-Friendly
Most farmers no doubt know which type of irrigation best suits their crops, but for the uninitiated it’s important to note that there are different types of irrigation and that the right choice can make a huge difference in how much water is utilized or wasted.
Among the various types of irrigation, which include surface and sub-irrigation, drip irrigation is arguably the most effective method in terms of how much water is saved by avoiding evaporation and runoff. Drip irrigation works by distributing drops of water near the roots of plants on a schedule that maximizes absorption and minimizes waste.
2. Runoff A Runaway Problem
Agricultural runoff has long been known to be one of the largest drains on the nation’s water resources, pun intended. Runoff occurs when crops are overwatered and/or poorly irrigated and can result in massive water loss.
It can also cause severe pollution problems when runoff laced with pesticides and other chemicals leaches into aquifers or is introduced to water sources. This problem is most effectively combated by choosing irrigation methods that are well-suited to the crop and soil type, and properly monitored.
3. Water Laws Favor Farmers
Many people who advocate for more responsible water use think legislative enforcement may be the answer to encouraging stewardship of natural resources in the agricultural community, but the fact is that farmers typically enjoy power to negotiate water use when the resource is available.
Regardless of whether farmers’ rights fall under riparian or prior appropriation legal theories, farmers are known to engage in water-rights transfers as well as obtain support from the state in times of need. While more restrictive legislation is not necessarily the answer, it is important to note that there are few avenues of recourse for one who suffers from water management abuses.
4. Easy Irrigation Efficiency
Some things farmers could change about their irrigation plan may be very difficult and/or expensive, but there are some simple choices available that can save water and money.
For one, farmers should always keep in mind that being allowed to irrigate doesn’t mean it is necessary. Some water districts set specific times and amounts for irrigation, and it may occur to a farmer to use what is allocated regardless of need. This is wasteful. Other tips include irrigating in the mornings when temperatures and winds are lower and evaporation is less, and not irrigating when rain is predicted.
5. Current Use Levels Unsustainable
Perhaps most importantly among these facts is that there are areas in the U.S. that cannot sustain the current level of water used by its farmers.
The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has estimated that 15% to 35% of the world’s current water use for irrigation is unsustainable, and that the western U.S. is a particular area of concern. This means that farmers in California, Arizona and a few others will be forced to consider how to more efficiently allocate water, and the sooner the issue is addressed the better.
Agriculture is an extremely important part of America’s economy and society, but nothing trumps the value of water. More efficient and responsible water use is a goal that should be shared by all, and not solely shouldered by farmers.
James Madeiros writes for Seametrics, a producer of magnetic flow meter technology for use in irrigation to measure and conserve water resources.