Over the last decade, ongoing draught has been a constant reality for farmers in the West, making working in an arid landscape the new normal. A report by the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation predicts that by 2050, the vast area served by the Colorado River Basin could experience a water shortage of 3.2 million-acre-feet. A million-acre-foot is the amount of water that it would take to cover an entire acre under one foot of water. It’s estimated that the average Californian household uses about one million-acre-foot of water per year.
The drying up of the Colorado River poses a specific threat because of the amount of people that the Colorado River Basin serves (it provides water for an area that comprises seven states and around 40 million people) , but this example of water scarcity isn’t the only one, it’s a common story around the world, where the effects of droughts are exacerbated by climate change. Water scarcity is now something that affects every single continent.
For food and fiber production, that poses a hard truth when it comes to looking at the future. “Either we’re going to value agriculture and try to meet that gap or we’re not,” says Kate Greenberg, the Western Program Director for the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), an advocacy group that engages and supports young farmers.
The group recently released a study on young farmers and water, as well as a short film in conjunction with the study, both titled Conservation Generation. The film documents the realities of farming in an arid landscape, painting a picture of the farmers and their strategies in the face of a changing climate.
While we all know that it takes water to grow a seed, our own water consumption, as well as the embedded water footprint of everyday products can often go unnoticed. But water is a direct link to the people who grow our food. “Everybody is connected by water,” says Greenberg. “Somebody in an apartment building in Denver who opens the tap… it’s possible that water grew the peaches they bought at the farmers market.”
While we all need to eat, we also need water to drink, to run our washing machines, and all the other multitude of modern day amenities that require water use. (Not to mention all those other things some people consider “essentials,” like golf courses and bright green thousand square foot lawns.) Because of this, in the West, agricultural interests have often been pitted against those of urban areas. In Colorado in particular, this has come in the form of “buy and dry,” a process where entities, often municipalities, buy the water rights on a piece of land from a farm. The farmer may choose to sell or keep the rights to the land, but the water goes to the city. “As cities started to grow, they have been and are still, looking for a secure water supply,” says Greenberg. “That forces cities to look towards agriculture to secure water supply.”
The results can be detrimental. Without water, land often goes fallow and neighbor farmers can be negatively impacted. Some may even quit farming altogether. This results in a changing landscape of the rural West as small towns dependent on agricultural shut down.
Today, groups like NYFC advocate for a variety of solutions to address the issue of water shortage. Even for consumers, focusing on water is essential, “if people value local food, if they value having food production close to where they live,” says Greenberg. We too need to be advocates for more sustainable solutions.
As we see in Conservation Generation, for the upcoming generation of young farmers, the last decade of drought is all they have ever known, forcing them to employ creative solutions to manage their land and the water that feeds it. “With young people whether they grew up on a farm or not, they are looking ahead to the next 50 or 60 years of farming,” says Greenberg, noting that when it comes to climate change, increased drought and other environmental factors that affect agriculture, “there’s a lot that can change in the next 6 decades.”
Surveying a large group of young farmers in the West, NYFC found that water, drought and climate change are the top agricultural concerns for young farmers, and that they prioritize conserving water as part of their overall agricultural practices.
“Young farmers are blurring the lines of traditional sectors,” says Greenberg, like environmental, municipal, and agricultural. Instead, young farmers, “inherently embody a lot of those things; they value water for agriculture – irrigation is the basis of their business – but they also value land stewardship and conservation is a part of their business model. It’s not altruistic, it pays off.” As these young farmers focus on their futures, they know that more sustainable practices are a part of building a viable business. “It’s really good for their bottom line,” says Greenberg. “Conservation has a strong economic element to it”
Improving soil health has become a top strategy for water conservation on the farm, and here is where Greenberg sees the most promising potential. “Soil health as a conservation tool stands across all scales,” says Greenberg. “You can be a backyard gardener or you can have 10,000 acres and you can think about building your soil health for similar outcomes… That’s why soil health is exciting in terms of climate mitigation; it’s also a unifier.”
The solution is of course multifaceted, a combination of on-farm practices as well as policy and public programs that provides farmers with the tools they need to sustainably manage their land. But one thing is sure, if we are going to ensure our food supply, as Greenberg says, “we need to value keeping water on the land.”
Images: Eva Verbeeck for NYFC