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Drying of the West Forces Farmers To Conserve Water

As The American West Gets Drier, Farmers Look For Ways To Conserve Water

As populations grow and global warming rears its ugly head, one thing has become increasingly certain in the American West: Water is in short supply.

And it’s not getting any better.

As a result, Western Americans are constantly being urged to conserve water. For years, restrictions have been placed on residential water use. Monthly water-use reporting has become mandatory for both residential and commercial properties. And most of all, agriculture has been placed under particular strain.

The Age of Drought

At nearly any given time, California is in some state of drought. In fact, according to the Palmer Hydrological Drought Index, 11 of the past 27 years were deemed drought years in the state.

Why? Scientists have narrowed it down to rising temperatures world-wide — the effects of which have caused a reduction in mountain snowpacks. Less snow here means less water running through the streams and rivers of the West: conventionally the major supply of surface water for these states. With the reduction, states have been forced to draw water from aquifers — an option that is unsustainable.

Surprisingly, 2017 has turned out to be relatively good for water in California; a 5-year drought emergency was officially called to an end this year. However, this does not mean that Californians or any Westerners are in the free and clear.

Agriculture’s Effect on Drought and the Water Supply

As a key component to water conservation, agriculture is a growing concern in the American West, and farmers are being pressured to adjust their water usage, effective immediately.

In fact, agriculture is not just key to water conservation. It’s the key. Above all forms of water usage, raising crops and irrigating them causes the most water consumption and waste. It’s the #1 culprit, with nearly 80% of water allocated for human use being used up by agriculture. To put it into perspective, growing just 1 almond takes 1.1 gallons. Growing just 1 tomato takes 3.3 gallons.

But water consumption wasn’t always a concern when it came to farming. Irrigation was once a “free-for-all” of sorts, with roughly 40% to 60% being lost in irrigation lines and canals without worry. The reason for this much loss? Mostly, evaporation and seepage from out-of-date irrigation systems and faulty equipment.

Old Ways: Water Loss From Furrow Irrigation and Seepage

With a seemingly unstoppable flow of water, it’s unsurprising that over the centuries, many irrigation styles did not change. Furrow irrigation, for example, is an extremely inefficient method of watering crops, but it dates back to the ancient world.

Furrow irrigation involves trenches (furrows) that are dug between each row of crops. Water flows freely in these trenches; however, nearly 60% is lost before it even reaches the crops.

Modern solutions are much better at water conservation. Drip line irrigation or modern sprinklers lose just 5% to 25% of water. Predictably, these methods are more expensive to implement. However, they are naturally better for water conservation and the environment.

Likewise, seepage is another key cause of water waste in agriculture. Canals are lined with concrete; however, thermal expansion and soil heave easily cause cracks in the concrete, which then causes huge water loss.

The good news here is that synthetic geomembranes can be used to reinforce the concrete canals. These are liners made of reinforced polyethylene, great at avoiding water loss. “Geomembranes can save a tremendous amount of water that would otherwise be lost through seepage,” says Shane Carter of Western Environmental Liner, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of geomembranes for irrigation and other uses. “Not only do they bode well for the environment, but they’re also much less expensive than traditional concrete.”

A High-Tech Solution: Drones

No, it’s not a science fiction film — drone inspection is another solution that more farmers are looking into. Small drones survey farmers’ crops from the sky, checking for dryness and moisture and creating “moisture maps.” With these maps, farmers are able to see which of their fields need more water — and how much.

This form of irrigation monitoring also allows farmers to monitor plant health overall. Drones can calculate vegetation index and show the relative density of each crop. Traditional methods of field inspection involve actually walking out into the fields, which can naturally span hundreds of acres.

Money Matters

There’s a reason that it’s taken centuries for farmers to update their agricultural methods: cash flow. Using drones for field inspections, switching to drip irrigation from furrow irrigation, adding liners to concrete canals — it all takes money. And nearly all independent farms are low-margin enterprises. The cash simply isn’t there.

But neither is the water — and things still need to change.

Fortunately, federal and state governments are stepping in. New grants and incentives are being proposed and implemented to help independent farmers switch over to more efficient irrigation. Namely, there’s the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP. This program offers funding to farmers who improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems and implement other practices to conserve water.

As we look ahead to 2018, EQIP will be allocating more than $1.7 billion for farmers, potentially changing the way they — and we as a nation — consume and conserve our precious water resources.

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