Water for Farms

Thomas O’Donoghue….Building and Construction Technology

 Noah Wartenberg……..Building and Construction Technology

Heidi Mannarino……….Environmental Science

 

 

 

 

                                               Flood Irrigation

 

                                          Drip Irrigation

It’s a dusty, breezy day on Jack Durham’s sweet corn farm in Central Alberta, Canada. His family has been on this land for over 100 years. Outside, what seems like miles of plastic piping delivers slow drip water to the crops. With the land unusually dry and the wind blowing swirls of dirt around, his plants remain hydrated. But this was not always the system.

Jack has two framed photographs on his wall, both next to a window looking out on his land. One photo features the fields checkered with long, flooded trenches. The other photo features the same fields with giant overhead sprinklers, showering the crops with water. Jack carefully recalls each major shift in how his crops get water. With each major shift came a massive decrease in how much water he used.  

Here in Southern Canada, the agriculture industry is heavily dependent on meltwater from the mountains. Climate change induced temperature warming has been causing mountain snowpack to melt early, leaving less water available during the growing season. Resultantly,  many Albertan farmers have been seeing crop yield losses, especially in the last decade. However, because of their higher water efficiency, the Durham farm is able to remain as productive as ever. Watching some of his neighbors struggle has been hard, but Jack is sure he made the right choice in upgrading to such an efficient system. A choice, he claims, would have been impossible without major financial help provided by the provincial Albertan government.(source)

Our earth is exhibiting many alarming trends. Spiking temperatures far beyond historical precedent and erratic weather patterns are creating extreme conditions from severe drought to overwhelming amounts of precipitation. The changing climate has a hand in many concerning issues that threaten humans, one of which being the impact it will have on the crops we grow to sustain the population. Water is an essential part of life, and it is just as essential to crops as it is to us. Global temperatures are predicted to rise by 2 degrees celsius by midcentury (Prasad et al., 2018), and a rise that drastic would be disastrous to agriculture everywhere. For example, corn, a staple crop in the United States, would see a drastic yield reduction, up to 81%, with temperatures that high (Leng et al, 2018). The severe impacts that this one plant could have are far- reaching as corn is used in almost every type of food production including meats and dairy production. A reduction in crop yields is not just a farmers profit issue it is a societal issue that will test human resilience as food becomes far more limited and food prices skyrocket. The agriculture industry is not only essential to our national food security, it is also a large part of our national economy. In 2015 alone, the California drought caused an estimated $2.7 billion loss due to crop reduction, additional water pumping, etc. Approximately 21,000 jobs were lost as a consequence of this drought (Howitt et al, 2015, ES-1). This demonstrates how yield loss of crops reaches far beyond the food on our tables, it also can ruin the livelihoods of hardworking citizens. Additionally, many other US industries are dependant on affordable, reliable access to crops. Even food that does not necessarily have to be grown is affected by the limitations that climate change puts on our crops. The meat and dairy industry may suffer significant losses during droughts because alfalfa, which is the most irrigated crop in California, is widely used to feed cattle (Sadler, 2015).

 

California (CA), one of the major food producing states in the US, has been experiencing extreme droughts. CA produces roughly one third of vegetables and one half of fruits and nuts consumed in the US. This includes crops such as strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, grapes and more. In 2017, California earned approximately $50 billion for crop agricultural output (California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2019). With these rising temperatures, crops and their soil will dry up, causing the pollen they produce to dry up, and thereby rendering them unable to reproduce (Leng, 2018). As climate change continues to accelerate, it becomes harder and harder to fend off these drying soils due to longer and more severe droughts (Solving the Drought).

 

California is well known for many natural disasters such as earthquakes and wildfires, but as far as agriculture is concerned, the unrelenting droughts have had the most significant impact on the region. The most recent drought lasted 8 years, starting in December of 2011 and ending in March of 2019 (National Integrated Drought Information System, 2019). For historical comparison, researchers took to examining Blue Oak trees, which are known to be “natures rain gauge” because their sensitivity to yearly changes in moisture can be reflected in the structure of their rings. The analysis of these rings determined that this most recent drought was the worst in the last 1,200 years. It is projected that this is not the end, with impending climate change there will almost definitely be more droughts of similar intensities to come (USCB Geography, 2019). Preparing for these upcoming events and mitigating future negative impacts should be of utmost importance to the state, and to do that there has to be a strong focus on protecting that which is important to all aspects of life, water. Fortunately, there is strong potential to manage our water resources more efficiently by incentivising farmers to upgrade their irrigation systems to the latest technology (McElrone, 2016).

Farmers today have multiple options when choosing a system to irrigate their farms with, and some are more efficient than others. Since the beginning of commercial farming, farmers have used the true and tried method of gravity irrigation, more commonly known in today’s world as flood irrigation (Irrigation and water use). This method is as simple as the name suggests, as natural bodies of water are diverted and fields are flooded with water to allow the plants to grow. The inefficiency of this method is no secret, nearly 50% on the water used is lost to evaporation, runoff, or through the soil (Oregon Department of Agriculture, 2008). Alternatively, pressure irrigation involves use of sealed hoses and tubes to apply controlled quantities of water. Pressure generally uses half as much water as gravity (USDA Economic Research Service [ERS], 2013). Gravity irrigation has shown to have a runoff/ evaporation rate of 15%-30% (ucanr.edu), which is alarming when 43% of California farms were using this method in 2010 (sacbee). A gravity system of irrigation is flawed for a number of reasons, one being that it uses a massive amount of water spread across a large area. This allows evaporation to occur at an incredibly fast rate, leaving less available for the crops. There is also the issue that gravity systems indirectly deliver the water to the crops, as they bring the water within 2 feet of the crop and than let the water sink in and move towards the crops roots. Pressure irrigation, on the other hand, involves the water being concealed inside a pipe. This drastically reduces losses to evaporation, while allowing the water to be delivered to a much tighter radius around the crop’s base. This simple change from gravity to pressure system can result in up to 32% savings in total water usage (Nazibay).

 

Within pressure irrigation, the two major types of systems are sprinkler and drip application. Sprinkler systems apply large quantities of water to areas surrounding crops, and are on average 65% water efficient. Drip application delivers small quantities directly to the crops, and are on average 90% water efficient (Irmak et al, 2011). Comparing drip to sprinkler is like drinking through a straw vs drinking from a garden hose. Both of these are better than the gravity systems, which are closer to 45% water efficient and would be like drinking from a waterfall. Although many farmers have upgraded to new systems,the USDA estimates about half of the Western US irrigators are still using the gravity systems (United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 2013). By increasing public investment in irrigation technology innovation, we could increase the numbers of farmers using them (Public Policy Institute of California [PPIC], 2015). For example, potential for water conservation was measured in a heavily agricultural Texas country, where center pivot and drip irrigation are used by 60% and 5% of irrigators, respectively. They found that a one time subsidy for 80% of upgrade costs would make profitable a switch from center pivot to drip irrigation (Wang et al, 2012). Currently, US farmers only direct 24% of irrigation related investments towards increasing on farm use efficiency, and only 16% of irrigation related investments get public assistance (USDA ERS, 2013). Although these numbers are small, they are promising because it allows a lot of room for government funding. These small numbers mean that we would be able to reach more farmers and hopefully see a lot of change on farms all across America.

It is a proven fact that the agriculture industry is responsive to irrigation innovation. From 1984-2013, many gravity systems were replaced with pressure systems. Of all irrigators in the US, those using gravity systems decreased by about 50%, while the amount of farms that used pressure systems doubled.  

Our proposed solution to the water crisis facing America is for all farms to switch to drip irrigation which relies on a series of underground pipes to deliver water straight to the roots of the crops. Unlike flood irrigation, where the water is exposed directly to the sun, drip irrigation is below the surface and eliminates the losses of water through evaporation. Another benefit to this method is that it lets the roots pick the water up immediately so there are limited loses to water staying in the ground. Our proposal is to totally overhaul all farms in California that use flood irrigation and switch them over to drip irrigation. While this is an extremely expensive method for any one farmer to take on we believe that through government funding we can get a 100% switch over saving 22% of the total water used for agriculture in the state of California. This can be implemented in conjunction with the newly signed Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. This plan requires that all regions of California form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA) that develop and ensure the execution of management plans that reduce both water usage and water contamination, under regulations set by the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR). These management plans have to be solidified by 2022, and these plans will have to be implemented and functioning successfully by 2040 (University of California, 2019). If standards fail to be met the state of California will intervene and implement their own interim plan. This is less desirable for stakeholders because the State plan does not have to cater to the specific desires and needs of the area, whereas if they work with the GSA they can tailor the plan to the compromises they’re most willing to make. This Act will call for a shift in technology to accommodate these new regulations, and will provide a perfect opportunity for farms to make the switch to drip irrigation now that change is imminent.

There are Americans who are opposed to government interference in the marketplace or people who are against government subsidies (Amadeo, 2019). These citizens are more than likely going to reject our proposal because it would involve subsidies to make the technology more available to farmers. Through their eyes the market should be left unaltered, thus to allow the most efficient and productive system to spring to the top. However, there is a bounty of proof of successful government programs that support farms. Historically, American farms have been recipients of large government subsidies and tax incentives. Without subsidies, the cost of food and other goods in stores would be vastly more expensive, take for example Canada, whose prices on milk can be up to 50% higher (Wintonyk, 2013). After all, 73% of the returns farmers get on dairy in the US is subsidized (RealAgriculture, 2019). This is because of their value in respect to food security and the national economy. Another important point to remember is that long term food prices will increase if water becomes more scarce. Economics will tell you that if the price of inputs increases then the price of the finished products will also increase. By providing farmers with the most efficient method to water their crops we can decrease the price of the input that is water. This will than decrease the price that the crop will be sold at and hence cheaper finished products for consumers.

One group of people believes that the future of farming is to farm indoors. This idea centers around the fact that some people believe that if the weather and climate are unpredictable than we should farm in a way that allows us to control to climate. Their solution is to move farms indoors and grow all the food we need in multifloor  warehouses. Although this method of farming could be the future for society, our proposal is both faster and cheaper in the short run and therefore the more realistic option within the next few years. One of the key arguments for vertical farming is that you can build farms closer to major cities. However to build a 7 story farm near any major metropolitan area would cost around 100 million to 200 million dollars and years to construct (Naus, 2018). When looking at a drip irrigation system the costs are a fraction with the system costing only $3,000 an acre to install and with the average US farm being around 444 acres we see that the cost, 1.3 million dollars, is only 1% of the cost of building an indoor farm, not to mention it only takes a ¼ of the time to install (Chu, 2017). Although indoor farms consume 30% less water, from a feasibility standpoint drip irrigation systems are a far more obtainable solution.

While water efficient technology has started spreading through the country, there are still a lot of farms that have yet to make the change. For example, in California 39% of farms (3 million acres of land) have started using drip irrigation which is very water efficient, yet there are still some 3.5 million acres of farmland still reliant on the very inefficient flood irrigation (Citation). Some farmers may worry that, despite government subsidies, the implementation of technology will cut into their already slim profits. However, it is more likely that this technology will help them manage their costs more efficiently and therefore decreasing their expenses. Most famers will find that by implementing techniques to ensure more aggregated soil and by using more efficient watering techniques they will actually reduce the costs of their water bill. More efficient water management practices are also shown to increase the yield and quality of the crops, and cut the costs of fertilizer and sometimes even energy (Cooley, 2014, pg 4). And while investing money into more advanced technology may be a burden at first, the long term returns from the benefits listed above will far overshadow the initial cost. With the rate of climate change, these changes are imminent, waiting to make these changes is merely putting off the inevitable.

 

References

 

Amadeo, Kimberly. (2019). Farm subsidies in america with pros, cons, and impacts. Retrieved from https://www.thebalance.com/farm-subsidies-4173885

Bailey-Serres, J., Cho Lee, S., & Brinton, E. (2012, December 01). Waterproofing crops: Effective flooding survival strategies. Retrieved from http://www.plantphysiol.org/content/160/4/1698.short

California Department of Food and Agriculture. (n.d.). California Agricultural Production Statistics. Retrieved April 9, 2019, from https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/

Chu, J. (2017, April 20). New design cuts costs, energy needs for drip irrigation, bringing the systems within reach for more farmers. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2017-04-energy-needsfor-irrigation-systemswithin-farmers.html

Ibragimov, N. (2007, March 26). Water use efficiency of irrigated cotton in Uzbekistan under drip and furrow irrigation. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378377407000467

Irmak, S. , Odhiambo, L.,L. Kranz, W., Eisenhauer, D. (2011) Irrigation efficiency and uniformity, and crop water use efficiency. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1455&context=biosysengfacpub

Irrigation & Water Use. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use/

Leng, G. (2018). Keeping global warming within 1.5 °C reduces future risk of yield loss in the united states: A probabilistic modeling approach. Science of the Total Environment, 644, 52-59. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.06.344

McElrone, A, (2016, May 26). California farmers count every drop with efficient irrigation technology. Retrieved from

https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/05/26/california-farmers-count-every-drop-efficient-irrigation-technologies

National Integrated Drought Information System. (2019, March 31). Retrieved from https://www.drought.gov/drought/states/california

Naus, T. (2018). Is vertical farming really sustainable? Retrieved from https://www.eitfood.eu/blog/post/is-vertical-farming-really-sustainable

Neumann, P. M. (2008, February 05). Coping mechanisms for crop plants in drought-prone environments. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/aob/article/101/7/901/132812

Oregon Department of Agriculture. (2008). “Cut off” flood irrigation. Retrieved from http://www.allianceforwaterefficiency.org/Flood_Irrigation_Introduction.aspx

PPIC Water Policy Center. (2015, April) Water for farms. Retrieved from

https://aic.ucdavis.edu/publications/PPIC.pdf

RealAgriculture News Team. (n.d.). U.S. dairy subsidies equal 73 percent of producer returns, says new report. Retrieved March 28, 2019, from https://www.realagriculture.com/2018/02/u-s-dairy-subsidies-equal-73-percent-of-producer-returns-says-new-report/

Richard E. Howitt, Duncan MacEwan, Josué Medellín-Azuara, Jay R. Lund, Daniel A. Sumner (2015). “Economic analysis of the 2015 drought for California agriculture”. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California – Davis, Davis, CA, 16 pp.

Romero, E. D. (2018, March 02). From almonds to rice, climate change could slash California crop yields by 2050. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/03/02/590056872/from-almonds-to-rice-climate-change-could-slash-california-crop-yields-by-2050

Sadler, A. (2015, August 10). California’s drought: The meat of the matter. Retrieved from http://www.dailycal.org/2015/08/10/californias-drought-the-meat-of-the-matter/

Solving the Drought. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://environmentcalifornia.org/page/cae/solving-drought

University of California. (n.d.). Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Retrieved April 9, 2019, from http://groundwater.ucdavis.edu/SGMA/

United States Department of Agriculture (2013, February) Climate change and agriculture in the United States: effects and adaptation. https://www.usda.gov/oce/climate_change/effects_2012/CC%20and%20Agriculture%20Report%20(02-04-2013)b.pdf

USCB Geography. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://geog.ucsb.edu/current-california-drought-is-the-worst-in-1200-years/

Weiser, M. (2014, October 08). Flood irrigation still common, but drip method is gaining ground. Retrieved from https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/article2591279.html

Wintonyk, D., & Steele, L. (2013, February 22). Why milk costs more in B.C. than in the U.S. Retrieved from https://bc.ctvnews.ca/why-milk-costs-more-in-b-c-than-in-the-u-s-1.940777

 

 

 

 

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