Climate change puts pressure on agricultural water use

In a recent phone conversation, a farmer in southwest Kansas casually noted that he had stopped growing irrigated corn a few years ago because “it was too expensive.” Curious, I asked what it cost to irrigate an acre of corn in his arid corner of the state, feeding cattle and hungry for corn.

“It wasn’t the money,” he quickly explained. “It was the water.”

Most years, he said, he had applied about 18 inches of water per acre to produce a 200 bu. culture. “It was about 2,500 gallons of water per bushel and I thought that was too much. So I went back to wheat and milo.

Right now, most agricultural irrigators from Boston to Bakersfield are laughing out loud or softly mocking this farmer for not doing what most would have done: keep irrigating. Or, in this case, use 10,000-year-old groundwater to grow a subsidized staple crop in an increasingly arid part of the country to possibly feed a meat animal or an ethanol plant.

And, legally, the sneers are right. In almost every agricultural area of ​​the country, there are no laws preventing farmers, ranchers and agbiz from using their Stone Age water to grow, process and market any 21st century crop they choose, even though it takes 2,500 gallons. grow a bushel of corn or a gallon to grow an exportable kernel.

So far, that is. As the public becomes more aware of private water use, the pressure on how local, state and federal governments allocate today’s dwindling supplies is also increasing. More importantly, due to the general thirst for agriculture – 70% of the world’s water consumption is absorbed by agriculture and animal husbandry – agriculture is the biggest, fattest target and the slowest in any efforts or ideas to reassign her.

This year’s construction drought only adds urgency to those calls. In fact, on April 4, the US Drought Monitor, a joint effort of the University of Nebraska (Lincoln), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), published a updated map that shows “76.7% of the North American Great Plains” is experiencing drought ranging from “abnormally dry”, the lowest level, to “exceptional drought”, the highest level.

This means that virtually every agricultural acre west of the Missouri River in the United States and the majority of productive Canadian provinces, from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains, are starting the 2022 growing season with “abnormal” drought or much worse.

California, by far the largest agricultural state in the United States, is already facing unprecedented pressure to restrict water use. After a wet and promising start to winter, reported by the New York Times at the end of March, “January and February represented the two driest beginning months of the year on record”.

Most of this deficit is related to the “dismal” winter snowpack, a key source of water in California, which is only 39% of normal. Already, a recently announced joint state/federal project hopes to spend some of its nearly $3 billion to conserve 824,000 acre feet, or 268 billion gallons, of water in state rivers and out of rice paddies around the world. northern California.

Alarmingly, however, even though 268 billion gallons is a huge amount, it will only provide 1.6 million California homes – in a state that has 14.4 million – with enough water for a year. And that’s if the plan succeeds. The rest, and the state’s 4.4 million businesses, will continue to scramble for anything that can be begged, borrowed, or…

Today’s rapid climate change will make the situation worse. Already, forecasters suggest that 10%, or 500,000 acres, of California’s productive San Joaquin Valley must be permanently fallow “by 2040 to achieve sustainable water use.”

Who wants to tell these farmers about to be set aside that their water will soon belong to someone else?

Not me, but these farmers — and, sooner than later, all American farmers and ranchers — will be faced with similar news. As such, my farmer friend from Kansas might just have the last laugh.

The Agriculture and Food File is published weekly in the United States and Canada. Old chronicles, supporting documents and contact details are published on

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