Thus far we have covered Energy in general, which is one major input to industrial agriculture. This post will cover another major input, water. Plants need water to grow. Humans and livestock need water to drink. Whole ecosystems need adequate water for their purposes. What happens if drought forces a scarcity of fresh water? We are in the beginning stages of finding out the answer to this question, as climate change threatens increases in severe weather, desertification, and pro-longed drought.
California right now is in a state of severe drought, potentially the worst drought in 500 years, according to at least one professor. California grows 25% of the country’s food, including more than half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables in the United States. Agriculture uses 80% of water in the state. Livestock farmers are among the hardest hit by the drought. Not only do they need water for the livestock to drink, but they need water to grow the fields the livestock feed on. According to the USGS waster contents calculator, a pound of ground beef requires between 4,000-12,000 gallons of water to produce.
The drought in the West, coupled with bitter cold in much of the rest of the country, has helped shrink the nation’s cattle population to a 61-year low. Wholesale prices for choice-graded beef hit an all-time high of $240.05 per hundredweight Jan. 22, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (source)
You can see from this image at Folsom Lake near Sacramento taken by the California Department of Water Resources how bad things are.
According to NASA, the lake has gone from 97 percent capacity down to 17 percent.
California is not the only state having water problems. California uses approximately 5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River every year. The Colorado River and its tributaries provide water to nearly 40 million people for municipal use, supply water to irrigate nearly 5.5 million acres of land It provides water for 7 different states. Americanrivers.org named the Colorado River the most endangered river of 2013.
Lake Mead is the largest water reservoir in the United States, formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River. It set a record low water level of 1081.94 feet in 2010. Today the lake is at 1108 feet. It is expected to drop 20 feet this year. Hoover Dam will not be able to produce electricity if Lake Mead drops to 1050 feet. Hoover Dam supplies electricity to 29 million people.
The United States is also not alone when it comes to drought. Sao Paolo Brazil is facing the biggest drought on record. Their biggest water supply may run dry within 45 days.
Drought causes farmers and municipalities to increasingly use ground water and aquifers. For example, during the last few years of drought in Oklahoma and Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer experienced its largest decline in 25 years in the Texas panhandle.
Between 1900 and 2008, the US lost 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of groundwater. That’s twice the volume of the water in Lake Erie….It gets worse. The rate of groundwater depletion is accelerating, according to the study of 40 major US aquifers. Between 1900 and 2008, the US lost an average of 9.2 cubic kilometers of groundwater annually as the growth of cities and industrial agriculture tapped underground reserves. But between 2000 and 2008, groundwater depletion jumped 171% to an average of 25 cubic kilometers a year. In just those nine years, the amount of water pumped from the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies a large swath of the US, was equivalent to 32% of the water that was depleted from the Ogallala during the entire 20th century. (source)
The Ogallala Aquifer was created by glaciers millions of years ago, and refills at a much slower rate than we are depleting it. 30% of the Kansas portion of the aquifer has already been pumped dry.
Beyond this, groundwater depletion is having unintended consequences. The pumped groundwater from aquifers and other underground reservoirs ends up as runoff, making it into streams, rivers, lakes, and eventually the oceans. In fact, in a newly discovered feedback loop of climate change, groundwater pumping is causing sea-levels to rise faster than glacier melt.
Other hidden costs of droughts include limiting energy production from power plants, as nuclear, coal, and natural gas plants are cooled by water. Drought also increases prices for biofuels, such as corn based ethanol, which requires water in order to grow. Low water levels on rivers such as the Mississippi mean limited capacity for shipping. The Mississippi carries 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 22 percent of the oil and gas and 20 percent of the coal. Higher shipping costs translate to higher prices for these commodities, exacerbating the effects of drought on food and energy.
The water crisis we are undergoing prompted the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, to come out last year and issue a warning to the world about fresh water scarcity.
I just recently watched a documentary about water on Netflix called Last Call at the Oasis. I encourage you all to watch it if you are concerned about this issue. Here is the trailer:
Today I’m posting two videos because they go together. I present to you The Story of Stuff and The Story of Solutions: