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.

(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.

How much energy does California use to move water?

Today’s post is a follow-up of yesterday’s post about Dr. Chu’s talk, debating whether I misunderstood his statement “that 22% of California’s electricity goes to moving water.” The source is no longer available online, and most likely it is a fraction of that, but the subject is important enough to do some further digging. If any readers here have expertise on this subject, please enlighten us with your knowledge in the comments below.

Though it is raining today in Southern California, we all know about the terrible drought conditions in the state which supplies much of our nation with real food – food that actually shows up on our dinner table every day. We should all be concerned. They produce 99 percent of this nation’s almonds and walnuts, 92 percent of this nation’s strawberries, and 90 percent of this nation’s tomatoes.

The more that California experiences a severe drought, the more temptation there could be to move water around, and that comes at a huge energy cost, which enters a vicious cycle, because it takes a lot of water to produce energy. Likewise, desalination can also be used to produce more of their water, but only by using enormous amounts of energy.

I found a great resource paper from 2004 – the NRDC wrote a publication titled “Energy down the drain – the hidden costs of California’s water supply.”

The following is an excerpt from that paper concerning energy use in moving California’s water around:


Moving large quantities of water over long distances and significant elevations is a highly energy intensive task. For this reason, water systems in the West are particularly energy intensive. According to the Association of California Water Agencies, water agencies account for 7 percent of California’s energy consumption and 5 percent of the summer peak demand.

The State Water Project (SWP) is the largest single user of energy in California. It consumes an average of 5 billion kWh/yr, more than 25 percent of the total electricity consumption for the entire state of New Mexico. The California Energy Commission reports that SWP energy use accounts for 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in California.

The SWP consumes so much energy because of where it sends its water. To convey water to Southern California from the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, the SWP must pump it 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains, the highest lift of any water system in the world. Pumping one acre-foot of SWP water to the region requires approximately 3,000 kWh. Southern California’s other major source of imported water is also energy intensive: pumping one acre-foot of Colorado River Aqueduct water to Southern California requires about 2,000 kWh.

In fact, according to an estimate from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the amount of electricity used to deliver water to residential customers in Southern California is equal to one-third of the total average household electric use in Southern California.


Note that the California State Water Project supplies water to two-thirds of California’s population. 70% of the water goes to urban users and 30% to agriculture.

Obviously, to answer the question in this post’s title, there is great variance from North to South and from East to West across the large state of California. In this next quote, the NRDC paper discusses the distorted low-cost of irrigation water provided by policy.

“It is difficult to calculate the full value of the subsidies given to users of federally supplied irrigation water. This difficulty helps keep the energy costs of water systems buried. Many California farmers still pay the government $2 to $20 per acre-foot for water, which represents as little as 10 percent of the “full cost” of the water, although some farmers are paying more as contracts are revised (e.g., $35 per acre-foot) For new projects built or proposed by the Bureau of Reclamation, water costs are between $250 and $500 per acre-foot.”

The NRDC then describes how opportunists use this cheaply available water for irrigation in a power arbitrage scheme, by selling hydropower at a substantial profit, and further reducing incentives to conserve the cheap water supplied to irrigators.

These issues become complex and convoluted once policy is taken into account.

As for farms specifically, the NRDC paper sums up water use by farms in California, “Ninety percent of all electricity used on farms is devoted to pumping groundwater for irrigation.”

In the Western arid climates where so many people prefer to live, the goal of developers is to supply water from a more water abundant location even if that means pumping it over a big elevation incline, which tremendously increases the energy required to supply the water. Often, these energy costs are overlooked in project planning phases.

I can give you a perfect example of an insane project such as this here in my arid Western state of Colorado. Without a lot of fanfare, a big water project named the “$1 billion Southern Delivery System” began in 2010 which is to pump water uphill through a 53-mile pipeline from Pueblo to Colorado Springs. Obviously, the rapid population growth of Colorado Springs required desperate measures in attempt “not to constrain” growth, and Colorado Springs had the water rights for the project so couldn’t resist. Though environmental groups signed off, they admitted that the huge energy requirements to pump the water uphill are a “greenhouse issue”. If you read about the project there are huge costs involved -including things that you might not think of- like roads and ranchers left high and dry, yet, many are benefiting economically during the construction phase, and there are those who will benefit from the increased availability of water in the Springs. Is it worth it to “not constrain” population growth? The Southern Delivery System’s website states, “Water is the lifeblood of our economic health, and critical to retaining and attracting jobs and business to our region.” I have to wonder how Springs residents feel about paying more for their water to pave the way for more residents in their city.

So, back to the question raised by yesterday’s post. What percent of energy used by the state of California is used to move water?

I wish I knew.

Blogger Dan Brekke summarizes the 2005 California Energy Commission report, “California’s Water – Energy Relationship” in a pie chart here, which would suggest that the amount of electricity used to move water in California is 4.2 percent of its total electrical use, or 48,000 GWh. This is too low, however, because irrigation is put into a separate category and I’d think it should be included as “moving water”, too. Also, more recent studies and papers since the 2005 California Energy Commission’s paper say that the Commission’s estimates were too low; and, that earlier studies overall have been using assumptions which have been too conservative.

(To view yesterday’s post about Chu’s talk, click here.)


About the photo: The Hayfield Pump Lift – photo and description by Chuck Coker @ FlickCC. The Hayfield Pump Lift is part of the Colorado River Aqueduct. The aqueduct carries water from the Colorado River across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, California. It is one of three major aqueduct systems that supply water to Los Angeles. The Colorado River Aqueduct carries water 242 miles from Lake Havasu on the Colorado River to Lake Matthews in western Riverside County. It was built by the Metropolitan Water District Commission. It took eight years to build the aqueduct, from 1934 to 1941. The water is lifted 1,617 feet as it passes through five pump lifts. The aqueduct has 92 miles of tunnels, 63 miles of concrete canals, 55 miles of concrete conduits, and 144 siphons. (That adds up to 210 miles. I don’t know what the other 32 miles is made up of.) The Hayfield Pump Lift lifts the water 440 feet. It can be found on the north side of Interstate 10 between Chiriaco Summit and Desert Center, California.

For another great photo see this.

Agricultural Predictions, Concerns, and, What’s New?

Desk calendar. Roy Lichtenstein. 1962.

To help kick off the new site, I didn’t post much in January, so today, I thought I’d recap the month from behind the scenes here. Again, the feedback I’ve received on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily has been very positive and I do hope that each of you are using it as the great resource that it’s meant to be.

First off, a couple of new things.

1) I’ve added my personal twitter feed to the right sidebar here at Big Picture Agriculture since posts here will be less frequent. This will keep some updates to this site for those who don’t do twitter and want to check in occasionally on what I’m tweeting. (Twitter is the only social media that I do.)

2) Realizing that a fair number of readers value a little commentary, I’ve added a small commentary box to the upper lefthand corner on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily. I plan to have fun with this and keep the space pithy, snarky, and at times, personal and off-topic. I will be changing this frequently.

3) I’ve recently changed the link font color scheme, also, on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily — with black links and an orange hover color. Over time, I will see if I can change the color of the visited links, as the set-up has some complications for doing that at present. I might also see if there is some way to add a small comment box.

For those who’ve requested an RSS feed, I’m also looking into the possibilities.

About the crash.

No, not the stock market. My computer. For those who’ve read my commentary box this past week, I’ve written about my computer hard drive failure that happened with no warning whatsoever. Since my computer was only three years old and was working perfectly, I expected a warning, and so was…. you guessed it… unprepared. For the second time, I’ve tried to go Apple as a replacement, and this time looks like a charm as I’m loving the software and solid state machine. (Before my last computer purchase, yes, the one that died, I came home with a defective iMac and was extremely disappointed with Apple’s technological support service related to that situation, enough so to give up on them at the time.) Anyway, I lost my photos, and all my off-line Chrome apps that I was keeping a ton of info on. With a little luck, my local super-super-nice Geek Squad is retrieving the photos for me right now. You’d think I’d have known better by now than to live so dangerously.

For the second year in a row, Johan Oppewal at Boerderij, the largest farm magazine out of the Netherlands, has interviewed me for their January issue, asking my impression of what the year 2014 will bring in U.S. agriculture. This has been fun for me, as I couldn’t imagine a nicer person asking me questions over the phone for an hour from across the Atlantic, and his English is so impressively better than my Dutch. Readers here might enjoy knowing what I said. If so, it follows in the box below…

• We have a situation with depressed farm incomes this year because ag commodity prices have fallen, and we will get a ripple effect in falling farmland and rent prices. Will corn meet input costs?

• The GMO food labeling debate which is on ballots in 20 states following Hawaii’s move… How will it play out? How could that change agriculture in America? (Johan finds this interesting because attitudes are loosening up on this issue over there.)

• How will the farm bill change, which is to be passed in January 2014? We are pretty sure it will drop direct payments and increase the crop insurance program. Farmers need to know so they can plan accordingly and policy is everything.

• The looming severe drought in California: Only 5% of water will be granted to farmers next year under current conditions.

• Ongoing loss of CRP (conservation reserve program) lands in US. — 1.6 million more acres were lost last year after it had already shrunk by 25% in the previous five years. Farmers are farming the ditches, removing fences to farm, ploughing down trees to farm, and farming the hillsides. This, too, is a result of government policies creating an economics that encourages plowing everything under. Will that policy continue?

• Our military, the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation, is stepping up the efforts to use biofuels for fueling the navy in an alliance between the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Defense. This, along with exports of ethanol, could help keep up the corn demand if the EPA mandate levels change.

• Global markets (other nations) are gaining market share in corn and soybean exports.

• As in your country, high tech farming continues to advance, precision ag, sensors, and the study of drones. As these industrial farm methods gain, they are being used in conjunction with more sustainable cover crops.

• Organic production is becoming economically competitive. The demand is there. Right now organic soybeans, or edamame beans in our grocery stores are imports from China!

• Irrigation continues to go strong, with not enough protection for depleting groundwater and aquifers. New systems continue to be installed, however they are also becoming more efficient.

• Farmers organizations are trying to improve their image through advertising. (like this Superbowl commercial from one year ago). Johan found this “odd”.

• California nut production is going crazy, China is importing our almonds and walnuts. The industry uses transported commercial honeybees from all over our nation, which is a set-up for a very abnormal bee situation.

• Diets: More and more consumers and foodies are shunning wheat products and going gluten free. The most popular new diet in America was the paleo diet this past year.

• The big farms keep getting bigger, and rural areas continue to depopulate, with the average age of the farmer around 58.

• I expect that the use of biotech methods to increase crop yields is a huge growing trend for the future, for example, Monsanto recently partnered with Novozymes for seed coating products.

• This year livestock farmers should do better because of lower feed prices.

• Long-range trends possible: Given right policy and for climate and dietary reasons, US crops could branch out from the predominant corn and soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice into more sorghum, barley, oats, sunflower seeds, dry peas, lentils, canola and peanuts and other crops, and if California loses water and is in a long term drought like those seen historically, other regions might start producing more of the vegetables and other crops known to be from California. ALSO, Canada is growing more corn and soy, as their industrial farming expands due to price incentives created by biofuels programs, and, in part, due to climate change.

Environmental Journalists.
I was also honored to have Dennis Dimick, Environmental Editor of National Geographic, ask me to weigh in with a few of my ideas about what the emerging headlines in environment and energy will be in the future, with an emphasis on agriculture, food, and water internationally, for his preparations to appear on a panel of six journalists at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC last week. In my response, I gave him four topics of concern, and I’ve put them into the box below.

• The Middle East: In many of their nations, the population is exploding. They have energy to export and money, but they don’t have enough water or food. More and more headlines from there discuss their planning and researching on how to provide water and food for their people. They are putting great effort into this subject. In a few days, there is a huge sustainability/Ag conference in Abu Dhabi drawing innovators from around the globe to discuss the future of growing food sustainably through innovation. (As a wild idea, I wanted to go to this but found out too late, and didn’t get funding.) They also have global water conferences, continually look into methods of desalinating water, growing food in desert greenhouses, and they acquire land in other nations to help with their food security. The Middle East’s geopolitical situation is ever so fragile for so many reasons. The Strait of Hormuz carries oil out and grain in, so forbid it ever becomes impaired. The globe’s rapidly growing energy demand is becoming more and more complicated, with growing renewables, and our fracking technology, which will eventually be expanding around the world, has implications for their future long term energy export prices. Saudi’s domestic economic and their own energy demands are rising, so to meet their needs, they really need high oil revenue. And as the U.S. appears to be stepping back from its previously strong defense there, the question is whether new nations like China could step in more. Recently, on Sowing Agricutural Seeds Daily, I included this amazing news item: GCC countries plan to build a 2,000 kilometre pipeline costing $10.5 Billion to move water from Oman to Kuwait.

• The pollution in China will start becoming more of a target of concern of other nations (if it isn’t already). A recent PNAS study reveals that on some days, Chinese pollution contributed as much as 24 percent of sulfate concentrations over the western U.S., and that China has 16 out of 20 of the world’s most polluted cities. (No hypocrisy intended, as we import our goods from China which lead to much of this pollution.) Last year, China approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity, or, six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 percent of U.S. annual usage. Given that, and increased coal to liquids and gas plans, and the knowledge that they’ve polluted much of their land for food growing and much of their water, too, now we hear that rich younger Beijing citizens want their children to be able to live outside of China because of pollution.

• This drought in California is scary from an ag perspective and could lead to ugly fights between farmers (nut and vine growers want priority over lettuce and vegetable crops, for example). It could lead to higher food prices, changes in trade, or, relocation of some of the crops they are known for.

• Complexity of more and more technology is an ongoing concern… Is it saving us or will it bring us down? As my computer failed this week and I saw the insanity that goes on inside the Apple store, and, also know that we are trying to automate cars and tractors and gather more and more data from EVERYTHING, I really also worry about a serious technological failure on the horizon because of power failures, terrorism, solar flares, or who knows what, because more and more, technology is embedded into our food, ag, and water systems. Finally, there is a human element here that is in question philosophically.

• These are the negatives. I also see tons of positives happening…

Also, I received an inquiry about my availability to be on a panel at the BIO Convention in SanDiego this summer, but it is looking unlikely at this point.

(Earlier, I turned down an invitation to speak to a waterfowl hunting group in Wisconsin in March, about the loss of CRP land and policy related to that issue.)

Other than that, had a very interesting visit with a relative visiting Colorado on a ski trip who is an EE computer whiz/geek and suddenly finds himself a new northeast Nebraska farm landowner through inheritance (farmland inheritance is a quite a story in itself these days and he has quite a tale to tell just about that). He’s weighing and confronting the realities of being a conscientious absentee landowner who wants both to use sustainable methods and see some profits, too. This is a fascinating subject, as it is no doubt echoed across this nation, with, for example, more than half of farmland rented in many Iowa and Illinois counties according to 2007 USDA data. Sometime, I hope to make a post about this, and I’m proud to say that this family has been keeping up with what I write in this space in helping to sort through Ag issues.

Finally, good luck to local friend and reader B, and congratulations on his new farming venture as he finalizes an acreage purchase here in Boulder County this month. I’m looking forward to my tour of the property and will have the fun of adding my two cents to what his permaculture landscape planner says about using perennials to produce food, fiber, or beverage. That, too, just might be featured in an upcoming post someday.

Stay warm and safe. Spring is on its way judging by some recent Red Winged Blackbird and Great Horned Owl activity nearby. We’re having a mild Colorado winter this season with abundant Rocky Mountain snowfall, which is good, given the drought in the western U.S.

Geography Lesson: Just How Big is Africa?

This map of Africa was created by Kal Krause, who calls it a small contribution in the fight against rampant immappancy, a word meaning insufficient geographical knowledge.

For comparison, the U.S. including Alaska, has a land size that is only 32 percent of the size of Africa.

Next, let’s look at a map showing renewable water per capita in Africa. As you can see, water security in Africa varies greatly by country, but on average is scarce.

With a rapidly growing population, Africa faces water challenges in many of its countries, in both quantity and quality, and is expected to face more water difficulties with a changing climate. In addition, much of its soils are acidic, nutrient depleted, and desertified. Most African farmers are poor, lacking fertilizers, machinery, and infrastructure.

Yet, the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, known as a great food-insecure region, has seen a decline in its undernourished population in the past two decades, falling from 33 percent to 25 percent, according the the FAO. Agricultural author, Paul McMahon, believes that Sub-Saharan Africa has enormous potential to increase production, with more than 750 million hectares of suitable land that could be brought into production, and the potential to triple yields.

This large continent will be ground zero for agricultural development in coming decades.

Thank you to valued reader, Dave, who alerted me to this map of Africa.