Population growth and inequitable resource distribution are intensifying the need to reduce water usage in agriculture. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the agricultural industry accounts for 80% of the United States' water use, a number that could easily be mitigated by incorporating more sustainable methods.
Reducing agricultural water use preserves natural resources, prevents unnecessary waste and improves the cost-effectiveness of cultivating various crops. Farmers who rely on water-intensive agriculture must spend thousands of dollars on infrastructure, but the benefits may not justify the investment.
A sustainable solution to reduce agricultural water use goes beyond utilizing more efficient watering methods. Helping farmers build healthy soil so less water is needed is a great place to start. Incorporating cover crops to retain moisture and choosing location-specific plant species also plays a role in a farm's water management plan.
Perhaps most importantly, harvesting and storing water from other resources is of the utmost importance. Instead of relying on groundwater and stormwater, many farmers invest in infrastructure that enables them to capture extra water. Collecting rainwater and maintaining a reliable water supply backup contribute to the overall resilience of the farm.
1. Build Healthy Soil
Issues such as soil runoff, which pollutes waterways and removes vital topsoil, could easily be mitigated by supporting healthy soil. If you are growing an annual crop like soybeans in soil that is devoid of any real nutrient value, it is much more likely that soil will be easily washed away in a major storm. Not only does the lack of nutrients affect the health and production of the plant, but it also contributes to unnecessary water waste.
2. Utilize Cover Crops
Cover cropping is the process of planting a crop to protect the soil before and after harvesting cash crops. Cover crops can include wheat, barley or radishes, and help to absorb valuable nutrients like nitrate-nitrogen and prevent runoff. By maintaining a strong root structure in the soil, they help keep water in fields instead of waterways.
3. Use Drip Irrigation
Drip irrigation is the practice of using a system of tubes to deliver water directly to plant roots. By watering plants at their base instead of overhead, farmers can save water and time, ultimately leading to healthier plants. Overhead watering is especially wasteful, since most of the water only reaches the plant foliage and doesn't impact the soil.
4. Capture and Store Water
Irrigation from rainwater is an efficient solution for conserving water. Most of the water used in agricultural systems comes from groundwater. However, this supply is extremely vulnerable, and it is important to be conscious of how quickly a farm depletes groundwater sources.
Many farmers are building infrastructure to capture and store water so that they can increase the amount of usable water they have available. Storing water also reduces pressure on groundwater supplies, specifically in areas that are vulnerable to water shortages.
5. Incorporate Drought-Resistant Plants
More and more farmers realize that a huge step in reducing water usage is changing up their crop rotation. Moreover, in many parts of the world, crops are grown that would not traditionally thrive in that environment. For example, California produces over 80% of the world's almond supply. However, a single almond uses a gallon of water, making them an extremely water-intensive crop. Shifting the food system in a more water-conscious direction and incorporating drought-resistant plants, we can reduce agricultural water usage.
Sustainable Water Use
Agricultural is a huge player in depleting groundwater supplies and contributing to extensive droughts. Especially with changes in temperature and weather patterns due to climate change, conserving water is more important than ever. Agricultural water usage must be reduced in order to continue producing food at a sustainable level.
Many farmers are incorporating sustainable methods to conserve water. Building up nutrients in the soil, using the right plants, installing efficient irrigation systems and storing water are just a few ways farmers can reduce their water usage. Using practices like drip tape and rainwater irrigation can make farms more resilient in the face of water insecurity.
Emily Folk is passionate about environmental sustainability and more of her work can be found on her site, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter for her latest updates.