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Earth Science

Is Agriculture Sucking Fresh Water Dry? 379

sciencehabit writes "The average American uses enough water each year to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and global agriculture consumes a whopping 92% of all fresh water used annually. Those are the conclusions of the most comprehensive analysis to date of global water use, which also finds that one-fifth of humankind's water consumption flows across international borders as 'virtual water' — the water needed to produce a commodity, such as meat or electronics, if the ultimate consumers were to make it themselves rather than outsource its growth or manufacture."
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Is Agriculture Sucking Fresh Water Dry?

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  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:38AM (#39042667)

    Australians are dealing with it as well. The cities are drinking up more and more water. In the east where they have lots of water there is no question of starving the farms to feed the cities. But in the west water is a limited quantity.

    Sure, we could kill the bread basket of the US... or in california's case it's fruit-basket. But to what end? We're already importing a lot of food from mexico because the farms have been starved for decades. Huge stretches of California that used to be covered in farms are now dust. It has nothing to do with land management. The land is fine... there is no water. And there used to be lots. The cities drank it.

    Now, the cities need it... and if I have to choose between the cities getting the water or the farms then I'll choose the cities. But it's a dangerous game and the best solution is to build more dams, more reservoirs, more pipe lines, and more water treatment centers. All of that costs money but the cities have NOT built water infrastructure to keep pace with their consumption. The farms use a lot of water but their consumption has gone DOWN. The consumption of the cities has gone up and they haven't built anything. They just grow and grow without building new infrastructure for water. Even the big cities in the east aren't keeping pace. New York City has some giant water pipes under it that pump water out of an aquifer under the city. When initially built, the city only needed one of those pipes. The rest was extra for growth or if they wanted to shut down one for a time. Now they can't shut down any of them and are piping water in from farther away. But they've built nothing to deal with it.

    Contrary to what many environmentalists are saying, sustainable growth doesn't mean "no growth" instead it means expanding our infrastructure as we grow so that we don't have shortages. Killing the farms to get water to the cities only shifts problems. Do that and all our food will say "product of mexico" or canada or some other place because we won't grow anything. The Australians are having the same problem. Huge amounts of water flow into the sea untapped in eastern Australia. Dams that were scheduled to be built 30 or 40 years ago were never built. It would apparently spoil the view or something. So farmers in Australia are literally committing suicide because their family farms are being starved of water and driving them out of business. To say nothing of the fact that the country is increasingly dependent on foreign importation of food when previously they were largely self sufficient.

    Point being... Do not starve the farms. If the cities need water then stop looking at who to take it from. Man up and build more supply. There is plenty of water flowing out into the ocean that is never touched to say nothing of rainwater that is never touched. Furthermore, cities could much more readily make use of gray water for cleaning/etc then the farms. Starve the farms and you'll be sorry... it will just mean food prices start doubling and you lose all control over food quality standards because its all imported.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:39AM (#39042671)

    > or if their aquifer is beginning to run low (apparently an
    > issue in some areas of the Outback in Australia)

    nah, they're used to it and have known it from childhood. Texas is a much more interesting example, as the town & city population density is much larger, and a large proportion of the state depends on "faith" for their resource planning needs and actively lobby against educating their own children.

    > but without some incentive it's going to be difficult to get
    > people to change.

    a big city like Houston running out of water is quite interesting to watch. (as has happened)

  • by petermgreen ( 876956 ) <> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:28AM (#39042875) Homepage

    The perception is that when something is cheap, it is of low value so it doesn't matter if you consume too much of it.

    mmm, it's basic economics, if something is cheap then you don't worry about how much of it you are using. If you do then you will likely be driven out of buisness by someone who doesn't.

    One problem is in a lot of places there are a lot of people with rights to draw from the same aquifer. Since each individually makes up a tiny portion of the load on the aquifer none of them individually have any motivatation to reduce what they take from it even if the current overall take rate is unsustainable.

    Compare US irrigation methods: [] []

    with Persian Qanat methods: [] []

    mmm, looks the persian QNAT method avoids a lot of evaporation losses and doesn't need power but it also can only be constructed in specific terrain and looks highly labor intensive to construct.

    A compromise could be to keep the pumps from the american method but deliver the water through soil seepage like the persians do.

  • YES! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:31AM (#39042887) Homepage

    Because water sprayed on plants and on the ground dissipates into space! And we have angered the sky gods so they are not sprinkling new water upon us as much!

    The author of the article needs a bit more education in earth science. Yes I know the problem with pesticide and fertilizer contamination is real but if areas do proper watershed management it's just fine. What is the REAL problem is when you get idiots in a dry area wanting to pipe water out of a different watershed to them. For example, all the morons living in California wanting great lakes water. and large dams that reduce the flow to create recreational lakes for rich people.

    Plus for example Arizona, Nevada, and California has a population greater than it's natural resources can handle, so people need to start moving away or live with the lack of water. Disrupting a watershed in that way will only cause problems for the area having the water taken out. It's there because of a balance of the water consumed is equal to the water collected from rain over the watershed area.

    I'd support Pumping the water from the end of the Mississippi to California, but they don't want that water, they want that clean stuff we have up here, not the 1100 miles of turd dumping that happens starting in Chicago. Which brings up another point, rivers flowing to the oceans uses 80X more water than agriculture and industry combined. Why are we not talking how rivers are sucking fresh water dry?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:55AM (#39042967)

    No, building a wall [] between your delicious citrus fruits' water supply and other people who might need it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:02AM (#39042995)

    Some coal seam gas wells must evacuate water from the great artesian basin for years before they can have anywhere near productive gas yields. Around the Injune area, I've seen these mind-bogglingly huge evaporation ponds - actually trying to transfer precious groundwater back into the sky

    And although I've heard Santos are trying hard to make their reverse-osmosis plants work (that would be trying to pump water out of the aquifers at the gas extraction wells, and then back in somewhere I assume has no gas yield potential), they're having big problems making it work properly at scale.

    I wish I had some better links, but it's of serious concern:

    Almost 300 billion litres of water extracted with the gas annually. I've never heard what price Santos, Origin, QGC etc. are paying for this water: are they in fact paying any at all? And, "Millions of tonnes" of waste salt to be dumped somewhere.

    I know the situation in Queensland. And I know how much influence the Queensland greens have on the state labor government there. The only conclusion I can draw is that the Greens are just as corrupt as the rest of them.

    Posting AC, because I used to be closer to this stuff and should know better.

  • by Luckyo ( 1726890 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:29AM (#39043109)

    Actually, modern agriculture is exceptionally efficient. Problems lie in other things:

    1. Our diet, specifically that of Western nations. Meat production is far more water-intensive then similar value (in terms of energy received from eating produce) plant production.
    2. Our numbers. Amount of the people on the planet has exploded over last hundred years or so as child and adult mortality basically collapsed with advent of modern medicine.
    3. People born in the cities having never encountered the reality of food production. We have things like "organically grown food", which is essentially an older, far less efficient way of doing agriculture (among other things in terms of water efficiency).

    So as a result, we have agriculture that is forced to support an ever growing appetites of ever growing amount of people. As a result we're forced to use large amounts of water to irrigate the fields and mind you, this irrigation is far more efficient then it ever was in our history in terms of water used per yields received!

  • by s122604 ( 1018036 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:48AM (#39043219)
    Another problem that could be solved if we started an emergency nuclear power plant building program, on the scale of the mobilization for WW2
    plenty of electricity available for desalinization.
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:22AM (#39043405) Homepage Journal

    It's quite easy to imagine us using *much* less water in growing our food, and coincidentally spending a lot less money to produce it. It's just hard to do that without changing what we eat.

    If we were faced with an agricultural water crisis in the US, we could easily fix it by eating less beef -- at least beef that wasn't grass-fed. So I think that this problem might be naturally self-limiting in North America. As we approached the limits of the water available, the price of the most water-intensive foods would go up, and demand would shift to more water-efficient foods.

    The problem would solve itself, if we don't *try* to solve it. But the problem is that we *would* try to solve it. We'd invest public money to find ways of keeping the price of beef low, rather than letting the rising price of beef curb beef consumption. We might undertake massive public-works projects to divert water to the supply-chain of beef production. It's not that reducing the price of beef is an inherently bad thing to do, it's that costly beef isn't really a problem if there's enough capacity to produce food in general. Treating it like a problem is a waste of time, effort and money. Perhaps worse, most of the things we could do to fix the bogus "problem" would create real problems. Subsidizing beef will exacerbate the water shortage and strain public budgets. Diverting water will damage ecosystems and livelihoods dependent on them.

  • by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:23AM (#39043419) Homepage

    Won't economics just solve this problem? If food becomes scarce then its price will rise. If its price rises, then farmers will get more money. If farmers get more money they'll be willing to pay for more expensive water. If demand on water goes up its price will rise. As the price of water rises, the farmers selling expensive food will keep buying it, and people taking expensive long showers will take shorter ones. If water prices rise to 50 cents a gallon then voters will scream and politicians will build more water supply projects.

    By all means enforce food safety standards on imported foods, including inspections of where they are processed. Countries routinely inspect production of goods outside their borders - companies that don't comply aren't allowed to export their goods.

  • by proclomeesius ( 2558685 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:37AM (#39043545)
    I think agriculture still has a long way to go in terms of water efficiency before mass desalination plants and the associated environmental issues become a necessity. Simple things like lining irrigation ditches to reduce loss through leakage, and moving to more efficient irrigation technologies, not to mention plant and animal breeding and better soil management just to name a few. That said, you can put a nuke in my backyard tomorrow if it means we can start weaning off fossil fuels...
  • by Insightfill ( 554828 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @10:09AM (#39043811) Homepage

    What if we reduced our meat consumption, and reduced consumption of other water-hungry foods?

    If we did that, at the first drought, instead of meat and water-hungry foods becoming scarce, it would be grains that get scarce.

    I think the GP's point is that with 10-20 pounds of plant stock required to grow each pound of animal stock, we're wasting a lot of food with that extra step. Studies vary, but ~50% of the grains alone are fed to animals. We'd have excess food every year if a fraction of the animal feed were for humans, and have quite a buffer to withstand shocks of drought or blight.

    Slightly dated study. []

  • by dpilot ( 134227 ) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @10:11AM (#39043855) Homepage Journal

    Here's an idea... Go just a bit deeper. Why the heck aren't we using land for things that that land is suitable for? That includes other things as well as just the style/crops for farming.

    We build housing on prime farmland, as small farmers want to "cash out" and retire. At the same time, we irrigate deserts and turn them into farmland. Most of the time I agree that "the invisible hand of the marketplace" can come to a pretty decent solution, I just think that it can be very slow and damaging in the time it takes to get there. This is one of those cases, and it's all because of what I'll call for the moment, "false valuation."

    I once made an argument here on /. about "inherent value" and was promptly schooled by someone that nothing had inherent value - the only value anything had is that which the market assigns to it. This thread cites exactly one of those cases, and the commodity being poorly valued isn't just water, but inherently arable land.

    We tend to take something for granted - the marketplace assumes it's "just there for cheap/free" and neglects its value in making decisions. First we squander the resource, then with time we assign it a small value and begin to manage it in small-value ways. Eventually its value increases and we expand on those small-value management techniques. The problem is that sometimes those small-value management techniques are entirely inappropriate and often counter-productive as the resource moves to high-value status.

    We first settled in areas where land could be farmed, usually near rivers for transportation. As populations grew we turned the nearby farmland into towns and cities, and farmed land further away. Both the farmland and water were taken for granted - near zero value. Eventually land value started increasing - based on its building value, and farmland was still near-zero value. That started us doing things like irrigating desert land - like in parts of California. The Colorado River was a "cheap and easy" source of water for irrigation. Aquifers were a "cheap and easy" source of water in other areas.

    We grew into land use patterns based on "cheap and easy" water that is becoming less cheap and less easy, and those land use patterns are a big part of the problem. If we were farming where it's really "cheap and easy" to farm, and building our towns and cities on land that's no good for farming, perhaps we'd be better off. But we've come so far down the road we're on that this is almost impossible.

    I came to this realization at Disney World, on the "Soarin'" ride. Part of the ride went over the French countryside where a village was built onto a rocky crag, and all of the nearby land was farmed. This struck me as the exact opposite of the US, where we would have turned the farmland into suburbia, then terraced or leveled the rocky crag and turned it into farmland.

To be a kind of moral Unix, he touched the hem of Nature's shift. -- Shelley