How Big Ag is Using Water All Wrong

By Nicole Caldwell for Better Farm

The story of California’s water shortage is the story of Manifest Destiny in the US. It is the story of our belief that resources are limitless; that we could and were "meant" to stretch our civilization from coast to coast; that humanity had the right to dominate the natural landscape and bring it to its knees in servitude of Our Way of Life. The American Dream: to enjoy boundless growth, unimaginable luxury and to always have the ability to do and have more.

California today faces its worst drought in 1,200 years. The state is in a frenzy encouraging water conservation to residents while the rest of the country watches. The crisis is a case study for the rest of the world if residents, industry and Big Ag don’t change course—and fast.

A future without diverted rivers or massive water shortages is the face of small-scale, biodiverse farms banding together to provide food for a region, agriculture utilizing no-till mulching and layering, and alternative irrigation methods.

[Further reading: Check out the Dodo's amazing infographics on the water shortage here.]

Excluding water reserved for environmental purposes, agriculture in California soaks up a full 80 percent of the state’s water (excluding environmental reserves, ag accounts for 41 percent). The reason for that is irrigation; and the reason so much is needed is due to the monocultured, sterile growing methods used.

Rivers are rerouted to provide water to farmers, tourism, swimming pools and flower gardens. The amount siphoned off its natural path is divvied up among agriculture (2/3), industry (1/4) and residential use (1/10). Globally, we've dammed up and rerouted with such vigor that many of the world's greatest rivers - the Indus, Colorado and Amu Darya, to name a few - never even reach the sea. 

We've created a perfect storm for a massive water shortage worldwide: 

1. Our neglect of the soil, which otherwise helps to retain water and provide appropriate irrigation seepage for crops and livestock

2. Our supreme ignorance over what we put into waterways through direct pollution, toxic dumping, runoff and sewage overflow

3. Our neglect of existing water by destroying coral reefs, overfishing, damming up rivers and pulling too much out of waterways for use in desert swimming pools, big agriculture and even bottled water

4. Our continued refusal on an international level to truly address climate change and global warming; even as extensive scientific evidence suggests that continued increases of overall temperatures will put natural systems - and humans - at major risk. These consequences include detrimental effects on agricultural production and - you guessed it - rainfall, irrigation capabilities and drastically lowered water tables.

Factor into all this insanity an assumed 70% increase in food demand by 2060, and an estimated 1.8 billion people living without easy access to fresh water.

A satellite analysis in 2014 by NASA found that the majority of groundwater in the world's most important arid and semi-arid aquifers is drying up fast. Water in places like India, the high plains of the US and California's Central Valley is being pumped out much faster than it can be restored. The locations where this is occurring are coincidentally the world's most vital agricultural regions. They're also expected to see the biggest drop-offs in rainfall and soil moisture in response to ongoing carbon pollution.

Soil has lost a full 1/3 of its volume since humans began with large-scale agricultural undertakings. It can take more than 500 years to create about one inch of topsoil; it takes far fewer to destroy it. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) projects that the world by 2050 will have only 1/4 of the topsoil it had in 1960; we could run out of the stuff 20 years after that.

When we rip out all the trees in an area, plow a field, refuse to compost and practice intensive, monoculture farming, we kill topsoil. Root structures of trees help filter water from heavy rains and retain topsoil that would otherwise erode or be washed as sediment into water bodies. The scorched earth left behind is unprotected, malnourished and bitter. Dried, unprotected soil gets blown away: turning literally to dust in the wind. And that forces increased water use to make up for the lack of water retention.

In the US, we lose almost three tons of topsoil per acre every single year. We produce so many corn and soybean plants to feed animals raised for meat that we cost ourselves an estimated $45 billion annually in health and soil loss. Those picturesque, long lines of crops leave the bare space between rows vulnerable and exposed to wind and rain erosion. And erode the soil does, by the ton. Based on current industrial farming methods in the US, for each pound of food we eat six pounds of topsoil are lost.

Plowing, digging and tilling disturb the mellow balance of bugs, worms, fungi and microbes doing their underground dance. These practices kill the soil's ability to absorb water and prevent the damage wrought by unchecked flooding. They break apart the structure of the soil, which for all time has been layered top-down with mulch, compost, untouched soil and subsoil. The mulch at the top is like a Viking shield for the ground below, percolating water and managing temperatures.

[Further reading: Check out how hugelkultur can solve irrigation needs!]

In the short-term we rely on water treatment plants; they allow the richest people to drink the best water money can buy while actual water bodies are polluted. But the One Great Truth is that these things, done in these ways, simply can't go on forever. The system itself is unsustainable. Too much is being taken, and too many toxins are being given back. It’s a one-way, dead-end street. 

Sustainability refers to an action that can be repeated indefinitely, constantly replenishing what is being taken. If we do things that don’t complement that design, eventually the system fails. The longer we choose industry over environment, jobs over air, corporate loopholes over water, well, the less sustainable we are. We can't keep pushing the pesky issue of finite natural resources out of the way to maintain some standard of living that is just wholly out of step with our animalness. Doing so secures only one thing: that we're going to run out of the very things we need the most even sooner. 

There are regions all over the world where it is second nature to have to drill more than a mile to reach groundwater. As more disappears, how will these places be able to avoid violent conflict or human uprising over this natural resource? How will regional tensions escalate? What will we do if water becomes totally privatized?

This requires more than putting a brick into a toilet tank or reducing the amount of water we use to irrigate our gardens. Residents have responsibilities to protect natural resources; but Big Ag can—and should—lead the march.

To learn more about this and other pressing environmental issues (and what you can do about them!), check out my book Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living.