Category Archives: water

Where is Groundwater Use Unsustainable in the U.S.?


Above: Trends in groundwater levels observed between 1949 and 2009. Negative (red/orange) indicates decline in groundwater level, while positive (blue) indicates a rise in groundwater level.
Source: Columbia Water Center.


My list of concerns about what’s wrong with farm policies here in the U.S. is fairly long, but if I had to name the two that I think are the most important, those two would be better protection of our soil and our groundwater. At present, there are not policies in place which are guarding either of these adequately, and this is short-sighted.

The California drought story has been featured prominently in the news, and included under that topic, we have seen a few articles about the unsustainable reliance upon groundwater for farming there, which is an under-reported story that has grave implications.

Which is why this new U.S. groundwater study out of Columbia University is important.

From the study’s summary:

In addition to confirming alarming depletion in well-known hot spots such as the Great Plains and Central California, the study identifies a number of other regions, including the lower Mississippi, along the Eastern Seaboard and in the Southeast where water tables are falling just as rapidly. Overall, the report concludes, between 1949 and 2009 groundwater levels declined throughout much of the continental U.S., suggesting that the nation’s long-term pattern of groundwater use is broadly unsustainable.

There are farmers in dryland farming regions of Nebraska and Iowa and other Midwestern states who have recently added wells to their farms following the drought of 2012, to help capitalize on strong commodity prices at the time. There is an Iowa community that has seen its groundwater level drop because of an ethanol plant coming in and using groundwater for its industrial water needs. Many communities in Minnesota are facing the problem of nitrate-polluted water in their wells, so they have to purchase and transport clean water for drinking. In California’s agricultural region of Paso Robles, vineyard owners, who use 67 percent of the basin’s groundwater, sued others to preserve their unrestricted access to their rapidly depleting groundwater.

The stories about the use of groundwater go on and on.

Forty percent of our population gets its drinking water from underground aquifers, and groundwater is used for 60 percent of agricultural irrigation, here in the U.S.

Regarding groundwater use, we should remind ourselves of the Native American concept… that we need to make decisions based upon whether or not they will benefit seven generations into the future, even if making those decisions requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine tree.

Source: Assessment of trends in groundwater levels across the United States. March 2014. By Tess Russo, Upmanu Lall, Hui Wen, Mary Williams. PDF.

IEA: World Water Day Awareness of Water Use in Energy Production

“Water availability is a growing concern for energy, and assessing the energy sector’s use of water is important in an increasingly water-constrained world” —IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven

Tomorrow is officially designated “World Water Day” and this week, the IEA has been trying to raise awareness about the amount of water used to produce energy – on Twitter. The chart below is from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2012 PDF “Water for Energy – Is Energy Becoming a Thirstier Resource?

Please take note of the fact that the bottom half of the chart relates to water requirements for producing biofuels, and also note the differences between the various biofuels water requirements. Especially, note the minimum for each biofuel, which is defined as “non-irrigated crops whose only water requirements are for processing into fuels.” (This chart should also help drive home the fact that using irrigated corn to produce ethanol is highly irrational and wastes a precious resource, something that should be corrected by policy – now.)

To follow, are some of the IEA’s tweets (and facts from the PDF linked above), (rewritten for clarity), that contain some very interesting statistics about water use in energy production:

It can take nearly 60 gallons of water to power a 60-Watt incandescent light bulb for 12 hours.

154.3 trillion gallons of freshwater are used in energy production per year.

Water requires energy, and energy requires water: Each kilowatt hour of electricity requires the withdrawal of approximately 25 gallons of water.

Energy depends on water for power generation, extraction, transport and processing of fossil fuels, and irrigation of biofuels feedstock crops.

Energy accounts for 15% of global water usage, and will consume ever more through 2035.

Global water withdrawals for energy production in 2010 were estimated at 583 billion cubic metres (bcm), or some 15% of the world’s total water withdrawals. Of that, water consumption – the volume withdrawn but not returned to its source – was 66 bcm. In the New Policies Scenario, withdrawals increase by about 20% between 2010 and 2035, but consumption rises by a more dramatic 85%. These trends are driven by a shift towards higher efficiency power plants with more advanced cooling systems (that reduce withdrawals but increase consumption per unit of electricity produced) and by expanding biofuels production. (source: PDF)

So, as we can see, the IEA’s anticipated increase in biofuels production between 2010 and 2035 accounts for a large share of the anticipated increased demand for water used to produce energy.

In the energy-food-water nexus, water is the member of that threesome that is increasingly grabbing the headlines. And, in my opinion, a more accurate description of the problem we face would be the energy-food-water-biofuels nexus.

(source)
(IEA’s Twitter Feed)

Unfarming: The Way to Win a Million Dollars


Above: May 2011 flood on the Mississippi River. USDA Photo.

A little while back there was an announcement that anyone who could solve the world’s dead zone problems like we have in the Gulf of Mexico here in the U.S., could win a million dollars. Instantly, I thought my ship had come in, because I knew the answers to the challenge right off the top of my head. It would take me five minutes to do an outline, an hour to write it up, then, bang, a million bucks and I’ve bought my way into New Zealand. But then I caught the clincher “solutions must meet a suite of simultaneous and sometimes conflicting needs – from protecting water resources and near-shore ecosystems to ensuring the capacity and vitality of agricultural productivity” — at which point I gave up without trying. Appropriately, the contest comes out of Tulane University, based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

For starters, how I’d love to see a minimum natural area bordering all waterways, scaled to the size of the waterway. But, why is it that when something makes such obvious sense, then, it just cannot happen? Look at this from George Monbiot excerpted from his lengthy rant against corporate agriculture yesterday over at The Guardian:

We should turn the rivers flowing into the lowlands into “blue belts” or “wild ways”. For 50 metres on either side, the land would be left unfarmed, allowing trees and bogs to return and creating continuous wildlife corridors. Bogs and forests trap the floodwaters, helping to protect the towns downstream. They catch the soil washing off the fields and filter out some of the chemicals which would otherwise find their way into the rivers. A few of us are now in the process of setting up a rewilding group in Britain, which would seek to catalyse some of these changes.

Fifty metres is only 164 feet. Along the mighty Mississippi, we should have at least 2-5 miles of natural forest and prairie land — so George is being really conservative in his baby step plan.

There is good news today in industrial farming practices as they relate to the Dead Zone. There is less overuse of fertilizers, and precision agriculture and cover crops are helping.

But we need a wiser long-term vision, a vision which would bring back a healthy biodiversity to the Midwest. I’d like a lot of shelter belts to return to farming areas, “agroforestry” if you will; and, wildlife corridors which would run up and down the former prairie lands which would be available to the public for enjoyment and help to attract a vibrant younger population back to the Midwest; and let’s throw in a minimum percentage of taxpayer-funded natural land, or buffer strips, on every farm, too. By removing tiling from beneath buffer strips, those areas could actually catch fertilizer run-off. Finally, we could turn more of corn country into grasslands on which to raise large herbivores, and other livestock. All of these things could really help to reduce the Dead Zone… but what will NOT reduce the Dead Zone is the monoculture crop status quo.

The U.S. Midwestern industrial agriculture farmer ails economically today from the monoculture commodity oversupply problem. We have not gained export market share of our major three commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat) in fourteen years (see graph). This land which is polluting the Dead Zone due to fertilizer runoff is not, unfortunately, feeding the world. No, it is feeding our cars and the end-points of crony capitalism.

Are these things feasible? Yes, anything is feasible given the right policy support… over time.

Unfarming. Now that’s a word for this century.