31: Water – Modern Challenges Transcript
Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.
Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production that confuses a lot of people and try to get Hallie to explain it to us and this week we are talking about water again.
Hallie: Today is a follow-up from last week, we were talking about the history of irrigation where some of this technology came from. Today, now we’re talking about where we are now.
Chris: Yeah, to sort of sum up last week.
Hallie: Two weeks ago.
Chris: To sum up two weeks ago, you basically either have rain or you have irrigation or you have no food. If you have something like drip irrigation, then you can irrigate more efficiently so you can get more crops out of the same amount of water. This kind of stuff sort of grew up all over the world and was innovated and improved on in various places by various people.
Hallie: Yes, my favorite type of irrigation is topography based irrigation.
Chris: Which sounds amazing.
Hallie: It’s extremely cool. Today, where is water being used? The highest total water withdrawal countries are the US, China and India.
Chris: When you say water withdrawal that means you’re withdrawing water from some sort of local resource and using it for agriculture?
Hallie: It’s basically just freshwater use broad spectrum.
Hallie: That includes things other than agriculture. If you expand that to consider your extra no water footprint, so water withdrawal, meaning just like the water that you use in that country, not considering kind of the water footprint of your import export market. If you expand to include all the things that you import and how that uses water, then Europe and the Middle East are also added to that list of the higher water users.
Chris: All right.
Hallie: That’s helpful to think about whenever we’re talking about resource use, because a lot of resource intense products and produce are being created in developing economies and then consumed in Europe and in America and other larger, more affluent countries.
Chris: We import a lot of our stuff.
Hallie: Yeah, it takes a lot of resources. If we just break it down by which countries are using the most resources, we’ll oftentimes see emerging economies using a lot of resources, but they’re using a lot of resources to create products that are then being consumed here in wealthier nations.
Hallie: Looking at crops, according to an FAO, 2017 report, it takes between 0.5 and 1.5 tons of water to produce a pound of cereal crop, so that’s things like wheat or rice.
Chris: That’s mind blowing.
Hallie: Yeah, it’s like a lot. It’s weird to think of water in weight, but it’s very helpful because we’re also thinking about the food in weight if you think about it comparatively.
Hallie: For beef, that number is about 7.5 tons of water per pound of beef, which is obviously exponentially larger, which is one of the reasons why meat production in general is much more resource intensive.
Hallie: The FAO estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 liters of water, which is about 530 to about 1,320 gallons of water are needed to produce a person’s daily food.
Chris: If I have like some bacon and eggs for breakfast and maybe some coleslaw and quonia salad for lunch and then say a cheeseburger or steak or something, and some salad for dinner, producing those meals that I ate took between 2,000 and 5,000 liters of water.
Hallie: Yeah, I mean, if that’s your breakdown, then it’s probably much closer to 5,000 liters than if you were like a vegetarian kind of diet would be much closer to the 2000 liter.
Chris: Wow. It’s mind blowing.
Hallie: We use a lot of water.
Chris: That’s true.
Hallie: Even though we’re using all this water, irrigation is declining in the US and other places as well. A lot of places are looking at using less water in irrigation. In Texas, irrigation is down 10%.
Chris: Okay. Because?
Hallie: Because of droughts and over usage and climate change.
Chris: There’s just not the water to move from one place to another.
Hallie: There’s just not the water and so a lot of farmers and renters are seeing this pressure. They’re seeing water is either becoming more expensive or they can really see that it’s becoming less available. Droughts are becoming more intense and so they are needing to irrigate less to utilize that resource in a smarter way. For farmers particularly, this issue is twofold. We’re overdrawing our aquifers, so a lot of our irrigation water comes from groundwater and then we’re also often seeing a decrease in precipitation, whether that’s rain water, or snow melt.
Chris: We say our irrigation is coming from groundwater. Is that specifically a Central Texas thing?
Hallie: No, that’s globally. A lot of irrigation is from groundwater. 38% of our irrigated land globally is going to be irrigated by groundwater and then 62% is irrigated by surface water.
That surface water is going to be lakes and rivers that are filled up by snow melt and filled up by rain, so you’re seeing we’re overdrawing our groundwater aquifers. That 38% of global irrigated agriculture is having less water that they can reliably pump up from our underground caves. Then the 62% of global irrigated agriculture that relies on surface water, we’re seeing less precipitation, so our rivers are going down, lakes are going down.
Chris: Got it. Water, water. Not so much everywhere.
Hallie: Not so much. When we’re looking at aquifer recharge, which is here in the US a really big part of agriculture and as you mentioned here in Texas, we get a lot of our agricultural irrigation water and also a lot of our drinking water from our underground aquifers, we’re seeing recharge of those aquifers actually go down. The recharge of the southern aquifers in the southern part of the US is going down by 10% to 20%.
Chris: That’s presumably because of less precipitation.
Hallie: It’s hard for us to figure out. Models don’t have the capacity to fully understand why this is happening, but we’re definitely seeing it. Scientists are suggesting that it could be from lack of precipitation, but also due to increased concrete, right? If you have concrete, concrete is not very permeable. Your water cannot go down and soak through the concrete to get down to the aquifer.
Chris: Regardless, it doesn’t sound good.
Hallie: Definitely not. Because the climate is also warming, we’re getting less snow and we are also seeing less frequent rain or less predictable rain. If there’s snow melt that is feeding surface water or aquifers, then we’re not seeing that either.
Chris: I would imagine that would affect the topographical irrigation systems as well.
Hallie: Oh, definitely. Yeah, in the last episode, we talked about a really cool irrigation system that has existed for thousands of years that relies on snow melt from a mountain and if that mountain is heating up and getting less snow then that’s going to disrupt that irrigation system. I don’t know if climate change has yet disrupted that particular irrigation system, but yeah, we are also seeing of course, rising sea levels, and that will continue to happen as the temperature of the globe continues to rise. With rising sea levels, you also see the potential for salient of groundwater, so you can get salt in your groundwater.
Chris: I was about to ask you what salient was, but you just answered that question and salt in the groundwater presumably makes it unusable, or at least harder to make usable.
Hallie: It makes it about as usable as saltwater is, which is we can go through and purify it, but it’s extremely expensive and it requires a lot of energy.
Chris: Yeah, that sounds like the wrong direction to go.
Hallie: For sure. It’s not great.
On a lot of different fronts, we are facing a lot of issues with our irrigation just with drinking water as well, right? This is water that we need to live and there are a lot of challenges that we’re facing because of climate change and because of over use of our resources. There are some solutions. In the next half, we’ll talk about some, but there’s some that just like farmers are implementing. We talked about using irrigation less. This comes back to soil health, my favorite topic.
Chris: How is soil health related to irrigation?
Hallie: Well, if you have a healthy soil, then the soil particles hold onto themselves better, and they’re also able to hold onto water better, so you’re actually able to use the water that you do get from rain or from irrigation in a more efficient way. You lose less of your water.
Chris: Okay. When we talked about drip irrigation, last episode, you said that you don’t necessarily use less water. You’re just able to use the water more efficiently. With the healthy soil, is it the same thing, or are you actually able to use less water?
Hallie: That’s a good question. With drip irrigation and soil health, they’re kind of polar opposites. Not polar opposites, that’s kind of rude. Some farmers would get on me for saying that. Some farmers do implement soil health practices and also use drip irrigation, but it can be problematic because you have other things living in your soil that also need water.
If you’re only watering a very small part of your soil, because you’re just watering where that drip emitter is, and the rest of your soil is left, basically dry and fallow, then you’re not really feeding your soil ecosystem. It can be complicated. Usually, if you have a healthier soil, what we see is that that field is going to be more resilient to drought and will need less irrigation.
Chris: Okay. That makes sense.
Hallie: Sometimes your yield will go down and you’re not going to be growing as many plants, but you will not rely on irrigation in the same way if that makes sense.
Chris: It does.
Chris: All right. Soil health is a complicated topic, but episode health not so much.
Chris: For that, we need a break.
Hallie: Let’s go.
Chris: Hallie, do you feel healthy?
Hallie: It’s the doctor’s orders we’re in the break.
Chris: We are in the break.
Hallie: I would like to thank our starfruit level patrons, Vikram, Mama Casey, Lindsay, and Shianne. Thank you guys so much. You light up my life.
Chris: You do and you light up the podcast.
Hallie: You do, honestly. You literally do light up the podcast.
Chris: It’s true.
Hallie: You keep the lights of the podcast on.
Chris: Thank you to you and to all of our other Patreon listeners.
Hallie: This is your last chance. If you’re interested in helping the show out by providing some feedback, we have a listener survey. It will be closing on the 31st of January. That’s pretty soon from when you’re listening to this. If you haven’t yet, please take a sec.
It takes less than 10 minutes to go head over. You can go to onetogrowonpod.com/survey, or you can just go to onetogrowonpod.com and hit the survey button.
Chris: Yeah, just click the survey link. You can do it anonymously. You can tell us what you like, what you don’t like. It’ll help us make better content. Better content, better show. Better show, better you.
Hallie: Totally. We ask for a little bit of feedback about the show, what you like, what you don’t like, what other kinds of show you listen to. All in all, this will mean a lot to our ability to produce this show better and easier and make it more enjoyable for everyone, including me and dad, including you as a listener. Again, onetogrowonpod.com/survey. Dad mentioned you can do it anonymously. You can also leave your name and email and you get entered to win a very cool sticker pack.
Chris: We got some great stickers.
Hallie: Extremely cool stickers. Onetogrowonpod.com/survey, less than 10 minutes.
Chris: Back to the episode.
Hallie: Okay. In the first half, we talked about a lot of problems and issues, and I thought that it would be nice to do the second half talking about some solutions and how thinking about solutions work. Peek behind the curtain. We did a lot of research for this episode. It was too much research and we cannot fit it all into one episode because there are a lot of people doing this really important work trying to think about the current and upcoming water crises. I thought I would specifically talk about some of the solutions for the part of the US that I know the most about, which is the Southwest from California over to Texas.
Chris: Got some good news, bad news going on. Oh no bad news. Good news.
Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, kind of.
Chris: All right.
Hallie: I pulled a lot for this part of the episode from a report that was written by Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton called climate change in the Southwest water crisis and I pulled from this because I thought that they summarized the problem with agriculture and water use very well. In this report, they propose a couple of different solutions. I’m specifically going to look at the third one because the third one is what they say in the report. The only one that makes sense, which is planned conservation. The other ones are like pull water from somewhere else or make water somehow don’t know, or we just run out of water and oops, now we can’t use water anymore. Then we’ll be conserving not plants, just because we have no more water.
They’re saying that this option of we plan on conserving water so that we have water in the future is the only way to go, which sounds very reasonable.
Chris: They gave us five options, but then they said really, option three is the way to go.
Hallie: Yeah, which is planning on conserving and then doing so. In terms of ways to plan for conservation, they talk about energy, urban and agriculture, but this is an agriculture show, so let’s talk about agriculture. In agriculture, in specifically the Southwest of the US which is the area that I know the most about, one third of the water in that region goes to it’s the least valuable crop. Guess what that is?
Chris: Turf grass.
Hallie: No, hay.
Chris: Hay. This is why beef takes so much water. It’s because you got to water the hay to give to the beef.
Hallie: Right. Beef and dairy use a lot of hay. Hay does not go for very much on the market, but you do use a lot of water, especially in the Southwest.
Chris: I thought hay was for horses.
Hallie: Well, it is also for horses. You don’t eat a lot of horses.
Chris: Oh, okay. I didn’t go there.
Hallie: This was put together by people who have a background in economics, so they mark that off as a good thing. I, with the more environmental background would say, perhaps this is something to consider. We should be growing this hay, but then they go on to say like, oh, but we feed that to cows and cows make a lot of money, so that’s fine. But they say that there are other crops that we grow in the Southwest where farmers could actually make more money selling the water than actually putting it on food and then selling the food.
Chris: The water is more valuable with the crop and it probably doesn’t take as much work.
Hallie: Right. Exactly. But there’s not an option for farmers to sell water. It’s not an option.
Chris: Why is it not an option?
Hallie: Because that’s not how water markets work. Pretty much anywhere in the US and in the Southwest in most states, how it works is farmers and municipalities pay a fee to utilize the water, whether it’s surface water or groundwater. Sometimes if it’s ground water, farmers don’t have to pay any kind of fee to use that water.
But the fee for farmers is significantly lower than the fee for municipalities. Farmers are using this water and it does have a value both intrinsically and technically it has a monetary value, but farmers one, they’re not paying per gallon, they’re paying a fee. Two, they’re being much less than people in urban environments or peri-urban environments pay for that same water.
Hallie: In this report, they cite the statistic that eliminating these crops that are not basically worth the water that they’re grown with. Eliminating those from the agricultural landscape would lower agricultural water use by one quarter.
Chris: Hold the phone.
Hallie: Yeah, by 25%
Chris: Wait, eliminating those crops completely.
Hallie: Not eliminating them from our diets, but eliminating them from being grown in like California and Utah and Nevada. Places where one, they don’t have a lot of water. Two, these crops that do need a lot of water are being grown by being irrigated with water that they don’t really have. Saying instead of growing these very water intensive crops, like peas in Utah, instead they could be grown in like Guatemala where they don’t really have as much of a water shortage.
Chris: You’re not talking about eliminating hay.
Hallie: Well, they’re not talking about it. I would love to talk about it, but nobody really wants to talk about it. [Laughs].
Chris: Okay. But there are some crops that take a lot of water that we don’t need to grow here and we’re talking about eliminating those.
Hallie: Right. Actually, the water itself is worth more than the eventual crops because they just don’t go for that much on them. They’re not that valuable of crops.
Chris: Got it.
Hallie: This is like one option for saving a lot of money in the agricultural industry and also saving a lot of water because while would reduce water use in the agriculture industry, in this region of the US by 25%, it would only decrease the amount of profits in the ag industry by 5%. That would be an option. But when we really think about it that is at the crux. I know that that was very convoluted and kind of confusing, but that’s the crux of at least here in the US the issue with water and food, because we are running into a shortage of water because if you make the water more expensive, so that it’s clear to farmers that are like, oh, I’m growing this food, but this water is worth more than the food that I’m trying to grow with it so I just won’t use this water, then the food that is still worth it becomes more expensive for the end users.
Who ends up getting punished? Farmers and poor people, but we’re still conserving water. Does that make sense? The fundamental issue is how we value water, because water is so intrinsically important. We don’t want to make it more expensive, but because it’s not expensive, everyone can use it very cheaply and so we waste and pollute it.
Chris: You want to make it more expensive to punish farmers and poor people.
Hallie: No, I don’t.
Chris: Okay. I’m trying to follow. If we make the water more expensive, they’ll use less.
Hallie: Right. But then food will be more expensive and farmers will be making less money. Also, people will not be able to buy food as easily because it will become more expensive. It’s not a good policy solution, right?
Chris: It’s a terrible idea.
Hallie: But when we’re thinking through, like, how do we use less water? Because agriculture uses so much like we talked about in the first half, how?
Chris: Of the five ideas, this is the one that they said, “Hey, this is our best shot at saving water.”
Hallie: Well, they didn’t say specifically, make water more expensive. They said we need to figure out how to make farmers who are growing these crops that you use so much water and are not getting them that much benefit. They are not making that much money. We need to figure out a way to help farmers not do that. Farmers need to be using less water. We don’t want to make it more expensive, which is usually the economic answer. How do we do it? Fundamentally, that’s the thing that people have been coming back to for like 20 years because people have seen this on the horizon. They’ve said like, oh my God, we don’t have so much fresh water. Farmers are using a lot of it, but like that’s the crux of it.
Hallie: I know we talked about solutions and that sounds another problem and it can miss. That’s a really hard problem to solve, but since we’re also talking about policy and water, I thought I would talk about my experience doing agricultural water policy.
Chris: When did you do the agricultural water policy?
Hallie: Well, I’m currently doing it right now or I’m trying to. We haven’t actually done anything related to policy yet, but I lead currently, a policy group where we’re trying to find ways for Texas farmers to use water more efficiently.
Hallie: I thought I would talk about that a little bit. We are running a group that is focused on making it easier for farmers and ranchers in Texas to change their systems so that they are one, using less irrigation water, and two, are able to capture the water that falls on their land more efficiently.
Chris: You said you’re working on policies where you’re leading a policy group, so what kind of policies would help with that?
Hallie: Well, that’s part of what we’re trying to figure out. I did not realize how confusing being the leader of a policy group is until I did it. A lot of what we’re doing is throwing ideas around. Some of the ideas we have are just around education. There’s a lot of reasons farmers want to do this. Farmers are stewards of their land. For a lot of farmers, they’ve had this land for generations and they can tell that they only have so much water and so that they can use less. Oftentimes, farmers are interested in doing that. Part of it’s just around expanding education and extension funding for farmers in Texas, which would be hard. Part of it is just legally creating some kind of body to look at this further in Texas because there’s really no one in Texas, who’s doing this at the state level. Creating a task force who researches ideas, basically what we’re doing, but people who actually have government authority to go and research this things.
Chris: Not to mention that it’s their jobs and they get paid to do it.
Hallie: Well, actually, I don’t think you would get paid to do it.
I think it’s just another thing that the government asks you to do.
Chris: Got it.
Hallie: I think they pay for your snacks for the meetings and stuff like that.
Chris: There you go. Kind of like jury duty.
Hallie: [Laughs]. Yeah, except for that you’re an expert on soil and water and agriculture. Then the third thing that we’re looking at is trying to make it financially easier. Instead of making water more expensive for farmers, so they use less of it giving money to farmers to use less water basically.
Chris: Is this similar to giving money to farmers to not grow crops?
Hallie: Yeah, we talked in the previous episode. Was it the green new deal episode?
Chris: I don’t remember.
Hallie: I think it was the green new deal episode. There is a policy where farmers can put their agricultural land in a conservation program where they don’t grow crops and they just keep it as basically a wildlife habitat.
It’s kind of similar where there is a natural resource that has value to the commons and so the government gives money to farmers for taking care of that resource.
Hallie: That’s just one of the cool things I’m doing. If anyone has any pull with people in water in Texas hit me up, we’re going to be continuing to work on this and it’s super interesting. If you want to know more about it, you can also let me know.
Chris: We started the series with some cool irrigation facts, which were super neat, but then we realized that agriculture uses a lot of water and we need water to eat and to drink. It’s just one of those realities, but there are people working on it. I remember you once told me that and maybe it was earlier in this episode or last episode, you had talked to government officials and government officials would say, yeah, there’s some really promising technology right around the corner and that doesn’t sound encouraging. But if there’s people actually doing actual work on it, that kind of does.
Hallie: Yes, I think there are actual people doing actual work. Part of it is that it’s really not very popular to talk about using less water because it means that people get less water. It’s a really hard policy to enact and also a hard one to think through. We talked through one policy solution for one specific part of one country on the planet. Like if you look globally, there are a lot of different challenges facing water systems and there’s not one solution and almost none of them are terribly popular. There are definitely people doing this work. I encourage listeners to try and learn more about water conservation in your region, because it is something that is going to become increasingly more important. I know sometimes these episodes can be frustrating for you dad, where we get to the end and I’m like, everything’s complicated and hard.
Chris: It’s true. But you know, that’s the way life is.
Hallie: It is. I hope that you learned a little bit more about water and why I’m so excited about creating policy solutions for farmers because it’s so important.
Chris: My daughter, the lady excited about creating policy solutions.
Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On
Hallie: This show is hosted by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey.
Chris: It is produced by Catherine Arjet and Hallie Casey.
Hallie: Our music is Something Elated by Broke for Free.
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Chris: Be sure to check out the next episode in two weeks.
Hallie: But until then, keep on growing.
Chris: Bye everybody.