America’s Looming Agricultural Water Crisis

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Of the numerous problems confronting large-scale agricultural production in America, the steady depletion of water resources will likely be the first to bring segments of this mega-industry to a halt. Regardless of whether human-induced climate change is increasing drought, the methodic withdrawal of ever more water from precious aquifers and rivers for agriculture threatens an abrupt disruption of great swaths of American food production.

Vermont is in a historically unique agricultural position with regard to water: it has rarely been starved for rain. This bodes well for Vermont’s vitally important farming future. Vermont has redressed the bulk of water pollution by dairy operations, and Lake Champlain and other bodies of water have been harmed by run-off, including from farms. While we wait for Burlington and other large cities to reverse their (non-food-producing) pollution of our waterways, there is a huge opportunity to expand local healthy food production.

For decades, Vermont lost market share for its farm products as railroads and other infrastructure improvements brought products from competitive milder climates like Ohio to Vermont’s traditional customer base in Boston and area cities. The decline of western and southern water aquifers means that the industrial agriculture system that has eclipsed local ag for a century is not sustainable — Vermont has a strong future producing healthy local food for those same old customers in points south. (Those who seek to gentrify Vermont into their tourist destination have not figured in the polluting industrial food trucked from far away that they take for granted: imminent food price inflation will reverse that folly very rapidly.)

The USDA reports that irrigation accounted for 42% of the nation’s total freshwater withdrawals in 2015, to irrigate what in 2017 was determined to be 58 million acres:

Nebraska had the most irrigated land among all U.S. States, with 8.6 million acres of irrigated cropland, accounting for 14.8 percent of all irrigated cropland in the United States. The prevalence of irrigated acreage in Nebraska relates to the abundance of groundwater resources as much of the state overlies the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer. California ranked second, with 7.8 million acres, or 13.5 percent of all U.S. irrigated cropland; Arkansas, Texas, and Idaho rounded out the top 5 States in total irrigated cropland acreage in 2017. ….Since 1890, irrigated acreage nationwide has grown from less than 3 million acres to over 58 million acres in 2017.

Despite improved water-pumping technologies, the net water used in agriculture continues to deplete these priceless reserves:

Nonrenewable groundwater extraction in the U.S. is estimated to have more than doubled since 1960 and is projected to at least double again by the end of the century. Excessive nonrenewable groundwater extraction has several negative impacts to the local environment including land subsidence, water quality degradation, and sea level rise. Nevertheless, for many parts of the U.S., nonrenewable groundwater pumping is a necessity. In these areas, nonrenewable groundwater use for irrigation is increasing to meet domestic and international food demands. This practice is projected to continue into the future

But the “practice” is unsustainable: a national and international water crisis is upon us. Both the overuse and pollution of our groundwaters is largely attributable to monocultures (massive operations devoted to one or a few fertilizer-intensive crops). The disgraceful failure of ethanol production continues to allocate weak and sloped soils for corn, which (along with soy) requires extremely high applications of water-polluting synthetic fertilizers: “exploding demand for food with high environmental footprints, such as meat from industrial farms, is contributing to unsustainable agricultural intensification and to water-quality degradation.”

Meat from industrial farms (fed copious amounts of monocultural feeds) are indeed a problem; but grass-fed, rotationally grazed beef are the sole solution. The irony of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slandering cows in her New Green Deal should not be lost here — AOC wants to ban cows and reduce meat consumption, when cows are the chief alternative producers of fertilizer, and when managed well are the key to both preventing soil erosion and retaining water more efficiently. In other words, AOC and the GND strike a blow at the only path that can save us: one cannot fabricate ignorance this profound, but this profoundly idiotic assessment of American agriculture has come to dominate the Far Left, and now POTUS Biden stupidly demands that conservatives embrace the disastrous Green New Deal.

If America politicizes its food based on idiots who know nothing of farming, food, soil erosion, or water pollution, we will starve to death. Dramatic expansions of money supply are already spiking key food prices, and inputs of fertilizers and rising transport costs (all dependent on increasingly-expensive fossil fuels) ensure food prices will climb steadily skyward. The ignorance involved here is so pronounced that any sensible mind must query whether this developing calamity is deliberate sabotage.

But the root problem is not water, or even food — it is massive subsidies to chemical companies like Monsanto, paid through the peasant-like labors of rural farmers. The end result has been depleted soils and aquifers, the destruction of family farms, and the consolidation into larger and larger “industrial” operations:

farmers are pulling water out of the Ogallala [Aquifer] faster than rain and snow can recharge it. Between 1900 and 2008 they drained some 89 trillion gallons from the aquifer – equivalent to two-thirds of Lake Erie. Depletion is threatening drinking water supplies and undermining local communities

But our research … shows that farmers are draining the Ogallala because state and federal policies encourage them to do it.

Corn prices were too low to cover the cost of growing it this year, with federal subsidies making up the difference. Our research finds that subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, working harder to produce more while draining the resource that supports their livelihood. Government payments create a vicious cycle of overproduction that intensifies water use. Subsidies encourage farmers to expand and buy expensive equipment to irrigate larger areas.

Our nation’s entire food supply depends on the Ogallala Aquifer alone:

The Ogallala Aquifer supports an astounding one-sixth of the world’s grain produce, and it has long been an essential component of American agriculture. The High Plains region—where the aquifer lies—relies on the aquifer for residential and industrial uses, but the aquifer’s water is used primarily for agricultural irrigation. The agricultural demands for Ogallala water in the region are immense, ….The Ogallala Aquifer has long been unable to keep up with these agricultural demands, as the aquifer recharges far slower than water is withdrawn. ….There are global implications as well, as the region produces one-sixth of the world’s grain produce. A study from Kansas State University predicted that the aquifer would be seventy percent depleted by 2060 if irrigation practices do not change. However, the study further predicted that the aquifer could potentially last up to one hundred more years if all farmers in the region cut their use by twenty percent.

Grass-fed animals are the only viable alternative. Recycling currently wasted animal manures could replace fully one-half of synthetic (corporate) fertilizers, while restoring healthier soils, reducing erosion, and increasing water efficiency. The answer is not to eliminate cows, but to eliminate chemicals — which only cows can do.

Vermont has plentiful water supplies, and an opportunity to revitalize its agrarian culture and profit from its large availability of undeveloped agricultural lands. Young people want to move here and farm — thousands are already here. And milk is not Vermont’s future, except in cheese and other value -added production: the state is unable to meet current demands for Vermont meats like pork, lamb, beef, and goat. All of these can be husbanded in Vermont using the traditional agrarianism that has been eclipsed by the polluting, destructive folly of industrial agriculture. To miss this boat is to starve with the rest of the nation that abandoned its small farmers for the quick fix of a deadly industrial illusion.