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Navigating Water Scarcity Challenges

September 29, 2023

Mark Hovda

Western Regional Manager

mhovda@qlf.com

Mark Hovda, QLF Agronomy Regional Sales Agronomist California

 

No matter where you go in the world, and regardless of the crops you’re cultivating, one undeniable, indisputable law of nature remains: without water, life cannot exist. There’s simply no way around it.

In vast regions with high agricultural productivity, dryland farming is the norm. However, these areas experience droughts and floods, and the timing of rain can be unpredictable. Boom years are followed by bust years, but somehow, over the long term, the system works.

In contrast, arid climates with minimal rainfall and snowfall rely heavily on alternative water sources like aquifers and major waterways. Coupled with long growing seasons, this ensures that growers not only survive but thrive, even during decade-long droughts. This is the reality in much of the western United States, where food, forage, and fiber are produced not only for the region but also to feed much of the country.

However, what happens when this essential water source is turned off or significantly reduced? This is essentially what is occurring in parts of the western United States today. It’s often assumed that people understand that food must be grown and that water is a vital component of this process. Unfortunately, entities with louder voices and deeper pockets, often disconnected from agriculture, are dictating policies that threaten the very existence of those who are responsible for feeding the nation.

For instance, in California’s Central Valley, the largest agricultural area in the country, growers watch as their water flows into the ocean during droughts. Simple solutions exist, but those in power often defer to those who criticize agriculture without presenting viable alternatives.

In central Arizona, growers are entangled in a water war over the Colorado River, with agreements being reached by non-agricultural stakeholders, leaving those affected with little input. Without a consistent water supply, agricultural marvels like the Central Valley of California, Yuma, Arizona, and the Imperial Valley of California, which supply much of the country’s salad during the winter months, are genuinely threatened by existing policies.

So, what is the solution? Perhaps the agricultural industry needs to develop a stronger lobby to counter groups that prioritize their own causes over an industry that efficiently feeds the world. However, there are many voters who remain uninformed about where their food originates, making it challenging to convince them of agriculture’s importance. Nevertheless, those in agriculture should continue to voice their positions and advocate for their interests.

In the meantime, there are ways to use the invaluable resource of water more efficiently. This comprehensive approach includes reevaluating watering methods such as flood irrigation, subsidizing the installation of sub-drip irrigation, developing low-water-use forage crops, employing cover crops, practicing deficit watering to achieve the same results with less water, and reducing the use of high-salt synthetic fertilizers while maintaining and improving yields.

Of all the methods that can improve water usage significantly, enhancing soil biology stands out. By fostering a robust microbial population through the use of Liquid Carbon-Based Fertilizers (LCBF), water and nutrient uptake efficiency improves and visually more soil adheres to the roots (mucilage formation).  This is a critical portion of root zone (rhizo-sheaths) where water and food are stored and exchanged.  Increasing mucilage content enhances soil aggregate stability, which in the long term promotes better soil aeration, more root growth, reduces soil erosion, and increases overall water holding capacity (Guckert et al. 1975; Morel et al. 1990; Czarnes et al. 2000).  Mucilage also possesses a high intrinsic affinity for water, when fully hydrated, the water concentration is 100,000 time greater than its dry weight (McCully and Boyer 1997).  This leads to improved irrigation, with better infiltration and plant uptake, reducing water loss due to evaporation, run off, and leaching.  The ultimate goal is to enhance soil health, leading to healthier plants, better return on investment (ROI), and, importantly, conserving our limited water resources for more efficient use in the long run.

Throughout the history of agriculture, innovation often stemmed from the need for better practices or tools, driven by individuals within the agricultural sector. The challenges we face today are no different. Agriculture must take care of itself and take care of our soils.

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