Dry Fields, Dirty Water
Choke Point: Index finds fresh water in American farm regions, just as in other major food-producing nations, is in precarious condition.
By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue
January 19, 2014
By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue
January 19, 2014
America’s 20th century experience with water and food perfectly reflected a growing nation and its productive agricultural economy. Citizens agreed on national goals. Legislation was approved. Mammoth public investments were made. The result was that from one end of the country to the other water flowed free and clean from elaborate water works — great western dams, reservoirs, and transport canals, deep Great Plains wells and giant spider-like sprinklers, and from thousands of pumps and miles of pipes.
Water in America’s 20th century was so plentiful, so available, that farmers used what they wanted and most Americans took it for granted.
America’s experience with water and food in this century also fits its time. The very same water supply and transport networks that irrigate the nation’s grain, fruit, and protein bounty also encourage production practices that cause waste and foul the nation’s rivers, lakes, and groundwater supplies. The enormous quantities of fossil energy needed to operate the water works, process the food, and transport it to market contribute to climate change that dries the nation’s important food basket regions.
But faced with fast changing ecological trends that put the nation’s water and food supply in jeopardy, America exhibits little of the national resolve it once had to address the challenges. The country, by and large, is not developing new ideas about pollution control, making new investments in water conservation, and inventing new and environmentally friendlier production practices that respond adequately to new conditions.
This is one of the central findings of Choke Point: Index, Circle of Blue’s penetrating assessment of water supply and consumption in three iconic American agricultural areas – the Great Lakes in the country’s Midwest, the Ogallala Basin of the Great Plains, and California’s Central Valley.
The second conclusion of Choke Point: Index, drawn from months of field reporting and data collection and analysis, is that the United States’ important food-producing regions are buffeted by the same pollution, scarcity, and water-security deficits that affect China’s Yellow River and Yangtze River basins, India’s Punjab, Australia’s Murray-Darling River Basin, Mexico’s Tehuacan Valley, and other prominent global food baskets.
Yet just like farmers and government leaders on other continents, U.S. growers and elected officials cannot agree, or choose to overlook, the urgency of changing conditions, or the potential for real solutions. Instead American agriculture, and its international counterparts, pursue the business and marketing strategies that led to the precarious condition of national fresh water reserves in the first place: Produce more grain and protein. Use more water. Apply more fertilizer and farm chemicals. Consume more energy.
Choke Point: Index is Circle of Blue’s most comprehensive report on the confrontation over water supplies in the United States since Choke Point: U.S., which in 2010 was the first national report to describe the consequences to U.S. freshwater reserves from the immense, game-changing scope of the American fossil fuel boom. Choke Point: U.S. also identified water use and potential contamination as the chief impediments to the fracking technology that is allowing energy companies to tap huge reserves of oil and natural gas from deep layers of carbon-saturated shale.
In Choke Point: Index, Circle of blue journalists and data specialists also reached a third major conclusion that focused on data gathering. Though the digital age has made it possible to tap oceans of facts, the tools for distilling the numbers into recognizable trends are not keeping pace.
Powerful facts, after all, prompt nations to act. But until the world agrees to common standards and data-collection protocols — as it did in developing the HTML language of the Internet — the United States and the other big food producers will be slow to develop new ideas, make new investments, and invent new practices that respond adequately to new ecological conditions, especially the profound drying trends occurring where much of the world’s food is grown.
“It’s pretty sobering,” said Benjamin Grumbles, president of the U.S. Water Alliance, a non-profit water education group based in Washington, D.C., and a former assistant administrator for water at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s a question of time and degree of urgency. How soon does a crisis become a catastrophe?”
Three Iconic American Farming Regions
There are many places around the United States to view the front lines of the urgent contest for water waged by farmers, energy developers, and growing cities, the largest water consumers. Circle of Blue chose three familiar, and long-studied farming areas in the Midwest, Great Plains, and West Coast to develop new facts, and test data gathering and analysis tools developed for Choke Point: Index. We found the many strengths of the nation’s powerful food producing industry being weakened by an abundance of wounds – aggressive levels of contamination, wasted water, water shortages, energy inefficiency – all of them self-inflicted and the result of production practices that encourage maximum yields and minimal resource conservation.
— California’s 80-year-old water transport canals stitch together an audacious hydrological network totally devoted to one objective – moving trillions of gallons of water each year to where it won’t go on its own. Water collected and transported west and south from the dwindling High Sierra snowfields irrigates 3.75 million acres, over 33,000 farms, and serves 24 million residents.
But California’s massive water-using, fuel-consuming, and chemical-intensive farm sector now contends with equally momentous threats. On Friday, prompted by a severe and lingering drought that already made 2013 the driest calendar year on record, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a formal public emergency, warning that the state faces “perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began about 100 years ago.” State authorities anticipate that actual water deliveries will be less than half of the transport network’s capacity. While groundwater is seen as a substitute, serious groundwater contamination in California’s Central Valley farm region makes some groundwater unfit to use for crops even as it sickens thousands of people who drink polluted water, particularly those from poor communities. The need to better understand the state’s intersecting trends in water supply and use has never been more urgent.
— Driven by demand for U.S. grain, farmers in the eight-state Great Lakes Basin apply millions of metric tons of phosphorous and other fertilizers to their fields. A tiny portion of the phosphorous, perhaps 3 percent according to scientists at Heidelberg University in Ohio, is said to run into streams. But that is enough, they say, to transport phosphorous into the Great Lakes and produce algae blooms that have become dangerous to public health.
The Great Lakes are not the only major water body contaminated by algae. Dangerous blooms have also been documented from the Gulf of Mexico to the Baltic Sea, as well as in Australia’s Murray-Darling River Basin and countless Chinese lakes.
Half a century ago, Great Lakes states led the national initiative to scrub America’s waters of multiple pollutants, including phosphorous. Now the region is unable to decide or act on a new health threat caused by just one contaminant — the phosphorous that produces green algae blooms.
“The latest trend is that total phosphorous continues to go down. But more is bio-available and phosphorous is causing algae levels to spike,” said Upmanu Lall, a professor of engineering at Columbia University, and director of the Columbia Water Center, which collaborated with Circle of Blue to gather and analyze data for Choke Point: Index. “People are trying to understand why that is. We don’t know. I suspect is has to do to some extent with climate. It could be warmer temperatures earlier in the season and lasting longer into the season. The algae are more active and can mobilize phosphorous from the sediments.”
— Grain growers and cattle producers on America’s Great Plains gulp the waters of the Ogallala aquifer with such sustained thirst that they draw more water to the surface each year than flows in the Colorado River. The aquifer, like a coal mine, has a finite supply. Just as Punjabi farmers in India, who also rely on diminishing underground water supplies, most American farmers do not view water conservation as a priority nearly as significant as increasing the size of their harvests. That conclusion, driven by culture and practice, has pushed both agricultural regions closer to urgent decisions about water use, crop yields, and profits that each has put off for decades.
In the Ogallala region, we found evidence of a nascent shift in attitudes in northwest Kansas and Nebraska, where water conservation is gradually gaining economic and cultural acceptance. “The days of trophy yields are over,” Stuart Beckman, a grain producer in northwest Kansas, told us. Still, the question facing Great Plains agriculture and its consumers is this: Can the majority of farmers recognize their peril, and develop new mainstream policy and practices, in time to avoid ruinous water scarcity?
“It’s a deeply engrained cultural phenomenon in that region where farmers for decades planned to mine and use all of the water,” said Jay Famiglietti, professor of Earth System Science and director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California, Irvine. “When the train is speeding in that direction it’s hard to change course. Particularly when families and farms and lives are built on that. It’s hard to turn around.”
— Enormous tides of data and mountains of facts are being accumulated in databases across the United States and around the world. In Choke Point: Index, for example, Circle of Blue researchers analyzed land use and crop production trends in Ohio and found that soybeans are now much more commonly planted in the state’s fields than corn, a potential factor in why phosphorous, a soybean nutrient, is leading to massive algae blooms in Lake Erie. Choke Point: Index researchers also found that in parts of Kansas grain producers were dramatically reducing their withdrawals of Ogallala water to irrigate grain crops, while neighboring Texas growers were increasing consumption of the aquifer’s water.
But gleaning these important trends meant sifting through databases that used different measurements from different times and collected with differing units and standards. It was the equivalent of miners scratching at the hard seams of a coal mine with their fingernails.
It’s often said that many of the answers to the world’s most sophisticated problems are a click away. Choke Point: Index found that not to be true. Common units, common protocols, standardized measurements and other components are needed to develop a universal data gathering and search language. Inventing those protocols is essential for effectively using and mastering all of the stored information.
In addition, Choke Point: Index found that the federal interest in gathering basic national water data is waning as Congress depletes the budgets of U.S. water science and fact gathering agencies.
“We need a platform where there is some consistent way we can gain access and we can analyze data on the environmental front,” said Upmanu Lall of Columbia University. “Until we do that the idea that we can take the exciting algorithms that we are developing, and learn something about what nature is doing, and what our role is going to be, is going to be a big fight.”
National Confrontation Over Water Spurred by Global Trends
In its simplest construct, the confrontations over water that are described in Choke Point: Index are easy to summarize. Population growth in the U.S. and globally, and western-style, energy-consuming patterns of food production, are prompting persistent levels of pollution, and steep increases in demand for water.
Yet as global and national market trends cause production to bound upward in the farm industries that consume the most water, rain and snowmelt in the U.S. and other global food baskets are dropping, causing sharp declines in available freshwater reserves.
The details of this new narrative of risk are changing what we know and recognize about the global water crisis. Until the last several years, the most prominent feature of international concern about water focused not on the available supply to cities, farms, and the energy sector, but on its quality.
Dirty water, contaminated by raw sewage and pollutants, caused millions of deaths a year in the developing world. Solutions, while far from easy, were nevertheless apparent and available – education that leads to more knowledge and higher living standards. Clean water regulatory standards that are enforced. Water treatment systems that work.
The trend lines that converge around energy, food, and water are more complex, and more treacherous. They form a nexus of portentous challenges that historically have defied the capacity of human civilizations to solve. We’ve tried, of course. The track record isn’t keen. Archaeologists, for instance, theorize that hunger caused by deficits of energy, water, or good soil, sufficiently weakened the Sumerians 4,000 years ago, and the Mayans 1,100 years ago, until the two city-states collapsed.
Are modern societies more capable of resisting disruptions in supplies of energy, food, and water? The hard principles of science point to a pessimistic outcome. Expressed another way, the contest for energy, food, and water is the purest national and global example of the maximum power principle confronting the law of minimum growth.
The first principle, developed by an American mathematician in the early 20th century, describes the biological imperative, expressed by all species including human beings, to develop systems that maximize the intake of energy. The principle extends to human communities, which in modern times invented market capitalism as the primary way to organize and grow their way to prosperity.
The law of minimum growth reflects the principle barrier to unbridled development. Described in the 19th century by a German chemist, the law states that even with access to ample nutrients, an organism’s development — or a human community’s growth – is limited by the scarcest resource.
Across the planet it is water – not energy, not soil, not capital – that has emerged as the scarcest resource. Because of spreading water scarcity the basic scientific principles of growth and decline are now in conflict with human values and market capitalism – both expressed through leadership and governance.
Is human intelligence, resiliency, and urgency sufficient to surpass the laws of biology and chemistry? Modern governments, after all, have displayed a conspicuously inept capacity to integrate new knowledge and respond to complex challenges.
“We can convince ourselves of anything. But what really controls us ultimately is energy and water resources,” said David Fridley, a scientist and water expert at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “Without either, ultimately, there is no growth. We have a dilemma. What responses are needed to prevent a systemic collapse that is the outcome of the uncontrolled growth path we are on. We’ve built an extremely complex system sustained by high levels of energy throughputs. It requires more energy, more water. Collapse occurs when parts of that complexity begin to fall apart.”
Top photo © Brian Lehmann / Circle of Blue.
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