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Are farmers causing another Dust Bowl? April 16, 2010

Posted by WaterWise Consulting in Water & Business, water conservation.
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Many dry climates, such as regions in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas face another Dust Bowl if farming practices and water usage methods don’t change. Vast portions of Texas as well as other states that range as far north as Nebraska withdraw water from the Ogallala Aquifer, which is quickly being over drafted. Since these regions are mostly dry, hot climates, they must use significantly more water per unit of crop than a farm in a cooler climate, such as Minnesota or Idaho. Adding to the excess water use, many crops are not commercially grown in climates similar to their natural climates. For example, 900 grams are required to grow one pound of soybeans. 1,700 liters of water is required to grow one pound of rice.
As a result of government subsidies, farmers grow crops that are not necessarily the most efficient for that given zone. By growing crops that are better suited for dry climates, farmers would significantly reduce the amount of water needed to grow their crops. Another significant factor that contributes to excess water use by commercial farms is that of inefficient irrigation systems.
How many times have you driven past a farm with their irrigation system on around noon and seen clouds of mist blowing away? There are multiple problems with this scene. For starters, noon is one of the hottest times of the day where evaporation rates are highest. This causes more water to evaporate instead of being used by crops. Also, the irrigation systems frequently release clouds of mist because of incorrect pressure. Higher pressures in irrigation system cause sprinkler heads to emit much smaller droplets of water, which are easily blown by wind and evaporated. Another problem with this situation is the inefficient irrigation system: rotors. Rotor irrigation systems work by spraying the entire ground with water, but because of the low efficiency rates, they waste a significant amount of water. By retrofitting these systems with targeting irrigation systems such as drip emitters, the water is only deposited at the base of plants. This reduces the amount of wasted water because there is significantly reduced evaporation, and the water that flows out of the emitters travels directly to the plant roots, as opposed to wetting the entire surface.
Brian O’Neill
boneill@waterwise-consulting.com

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