If you’re eating salad for lunch today, chances are it came from the “Salad Bowl of the World,” which stretches for about 90 miles across the Salinas Valley in California. Lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, celery, cauliflower and many more are grown in abundance there, a source of pride and profit for those who work on the land.
But nothing will be possible without water and that is the problem. The Salinas Valley has been at the center of many years of drought which is as bad as ever. Vegetables are a commodity, and price increases may follow as water shortages increase.
Here’s an ominous example of the rarity: Snowpack, California, June 1, had 0% of its long-term average, according to the state Department of Water Resources. Zero.
This is a big problem because melting ice supplies about 75% of the state’s agricultural water. On top of that, rain is rare. The valley usually gets about 15 inches per year; In the first six months of 2021, about one-third of it fell, with only four-tenths of an inch of rain falling between April and June.
It’s not just Salinas Valley, of course. Farmers everywhere are feeling the pinch as the water dries up. Gabriel Castaneda, who manages the Humberto Castaneda production in nearby Sonoma County, planted only 17 acres this year – mostly inherited tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and watermelon – instead of the usual 180 acres.
“We weren’t sure how much water we would get,” he said in an interview. “We have to be very conservative with every drop.”
Other farmers are plucking water-gazelle alfalfa plants and almond trees – California supplies 80% of the world’s nuts, a $ 6 billion industry. And pastoralists are killing their cattle virtually everywhere, with reports that 60% of the country’s cattle herds are now “in a state of drought or aridity.”
Is it new normal? A combination of longer, more intense heatwaves, less rainfall and population growth in the west and southwest – Arizona, Nevada and Utah were among the three fastest-growing states in the 2020 census – putting pressure on water supplies across a wide area to one-third of the continental United States. Across. A recent U.S. Drought Monitor rendering map shows “unusually dry” to “extremely dry” conditions extending from the Canadian to the Mexican border, and everything west of the Rockies, including the entire, and densely populated, west coast.
Population and changing climate are just two problems. Many of America’s water problems are also the result of years and years of investments in critical infrastructure. With few exceptions, the 2.2 million mile network of underground pipes is so dilapidated that there is a major water break every two minutes in this country. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which provides these data points, says it consumes six billion gallons of purified water per day. This is equivalent to 18 gallons of water daily for every man, woman and child in this country. A moment more on this.
Yet for all discussions of population growth, it is important to remember that agriculture in the United States is the largest consumer of groundwater and surface water, consuming “about 80%” of the country’s water, and “more than 90% in many western states.” According to the Department of Agriculture.
What can be done? In the absence of further cooperation from Mother Nature — rain and more snow in the mountains — technology is helping. Outside the huge water sprayer that widens the field. There is a “drip irrigation” system, which reduces evaporation by supplying water directly to the roots of the tree.
And for some, but hardly all, crops, hydroponics may be the answer.
“The easiest way to think about (hydroponics) is to have the roots of the plants in the water instead of the soil,” said Paul Lightfoot, founder and president of BrightFarm, an indoor vegetable grower across the country.
This is a method that reduces water use by about 80%, he said, because it is reintroduced. “There’s no waterlogging, no evaporation,” he says. The water is in the “pond” (a shallow indoor pool, usually about 16 inches deep) where the plants grow. “So that’s how you use a lot less water.”
Lightfoot is also known as “regenerative agriculture” – agriculture that saves instead of releasing carbon. This helps to save more water. He called it the “least understood but most important thing” and a long-term way to replenish once rich soil in most parts of the country, especially in the Midwest.
Meanwhile, what about our own water consumption? Here, in that gleaming desert oasis known as Las Vegas, there is learning from everywhere.
Consider this: Since 2002, the population of Greater Sin City has grown by 57% to 2.2 million people. But the combination of stricter building codes and stick-and-carrot incentives for consumers has helped reduce per capita water consumption by about half – about 47% – said John Entsminger, Southern Nevada Water Authority and general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District.
“Carrots” behind efforts to prevent water use? Homeowners are being paid $ 3 per square foot to replace grass with desert landscaping.
“If you think about it in terms of water saving, every square foot of turf uses 73 gallons of water a year,” says Entmsinger.
Since the “Turf Reduction Program” came into effect in the late 1990’s (then the fee was about 50 cents per square foot), about 200 million square feet of grass have been removed, enough to circle the equator with 18-inch pieces. Soder, he added. Every year, it’s 200 million square feet of grass that’s not boiling 73 gallons of water. And Entsminger says they’re not done yet.
The “stick” incentive is a penalty for people who violate strict watering rules: only one day per week in winter, three days a week in spring and autumn and six days a week in summer, but only between 7pm and 11pm the next day. Watering is not allowed on Sundays.
Also big: Las Vegas’ waste purifies the water and dumps it in its reservoir, near Lake Mid, allowing it to be used repeatedly. But the level of the lake, which supplies seven states in the United States and parts of Mexico, is slowly declining due to population demand and what Antsminger calls “significantly reduced hydrology in the twenty-first century.”
Here, some clever financial engineering comes into play. California’s water demand is much higher than Nevada and the Southern California Metropolitan Water District Has proposed to build a huge new plant to recycle wastewater instead of dumping it in the Pacific Ocean. Antesaminger said the Southern Nevada Water Authority would help fund the project with 750 million, in exchange for releasing some of its claim to water from the Colorado River, which flows into Lake Mid, for future use in California Nevada.
Hydroponics and regenerative agriculture. Strict rules for watering. Tearing the grass. Americans are tackling the West, thirsty and growing, through adaptation and conservation. However, strict measures and continued innovation may be required in the years ahead. Look for best practices like this to accelerate to other parts of the country.