Monday, March 26, 2012

World Water Day, Revisited

Just last week, we talked about World Water Day -- this year focused on agriculture's great thirst. Yesterday's Wall Street Journal featured an article about California's farmers in the central valley who are being faced with large scale cuts in irrigation water rights due to a dry winter. Many farmers are facing cutbacks in the amount of land they plant and harvest.

Many people argue that southern California is not an agricultural Eden and shouldn't be so heavily farmed, given the general scarcity of water and the engineering feats needed to bring water for irrigation. But the reality is that much of California depends on irrigation not just for successful farming, but for a successful economy. When large farms can't plant their full acreage, lay-offs are not far behind. The WSJ article demonstrates the ripple effect of cutting irrigation water: even the local Ford dealership expects to feel the pinch in fewer car sales over the next year.

Stories like this emphasize how deeply water is embedded in everything we do. Too little water for cotton equals too few car sales to keep a dealership financially healthy. That's the negative.

The positive? Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Large-scale drip irrigation systems were first developed in Israel, where water conservation isn't a luxury -- it's a desperate need. Drip irrigation systems put water directly at the roots of the plants and use a fraction of the water used by sprinkler systems. The Green Revolution (the development of high-yielding plant varieties) tried to solve one problem, hunger, without considering related problems of land fertility and water use. It might be time for plant breeders to stop working on ever-increasing yields under "perfect" conditions and focus more attention on varieties that are drought-tolerant.

No comments: