As a teen, I remember using all my strength to open a giant valve in a ditch that diverted part of the Rio Grande into my grandparents’ citrus orchards. The brown water would bubble up from the valve and flood into the orchards, following the little trenches I had made with a hoe. This method is called flood irrigation and is the least efficient way to use water. Yet 93 percent of the world’s farmers irrigate their crops using this method.
In my younger days, I never would have believed that the mighty Rio Grande ever would dry up. Yet today it — along with the Nile, Ganges, Colorado and many other rivers — does not always reach the sea.
Westerners seem to take water for granted on this sparkling blue planet. Yet less than 0.003 percent of all fresh water is available to us humans. The rest is locked tightly into ice or buried too deep for our powerful pumps to reach, according to the United Nations. We still manage to use more than a quarter of the Earth’s total fresh water in natural circulation, much to the dismay of our fellow creatures. But even that doesn’t slake our thirst.
Worldwide demand for water has tripled over the past 50 years as the world’s population has doubled. Millions of wells, powerful diesel pumps and the diverting of streams and rivers are drawing down the water table below the natural recharge levels. To put it bluntly, we are using up our children’s water today. What will we leave for our grandchildren to drink?
Humans need less than two gallons of water per day for drinking and cooking. Yet we must have 1,000 gallons more to grow our food. In affluent societies such as ours, where meat is a primary staple, we need 2,000 gallons or more per day just to feed one person. Agriculture ties up about half our water, mostly to grow grains to feed animals. It takes about 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain. It is much cheaper to import grain than it is to grow it where water is scarce. Many countries that are running low on water have become grain importers so they don’t have to tie up precious drinking water for agriculture.
Our country is still a grain-exporting country but at a great cost to our future generations. Our water is subsidized, so most big agro-giants don’t pay the real cost of water. Some California large-scale farms buy water at $5 per acre-foot; the government estimates that the real cost is more like $40 per acre-foot.
What isn’t factored in is that most of that water comes from fossil aquifers underground, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies most of our grain-producing states. This aquifer is drawn down at a rate of about 10 feet per year and recharged at a rate of 1/2 inch per year. Two-fifths of our feedlot cattle are fed grain made of Ogallala water. Amory Lovins, efficiency guru from the Rocky Mountain Institute, points out that "growing that feedlot steer consumed up to 100 pounds of eroded topsoil and 8,000 pounds of ice age vintage groundwater."
As water becomes the new "gold standard" around the world, we begin to see water being used more efficiently. In our country, water efficiency is improving faster than energy efficiency as municipalities and farmers begin to address shortages. Like energy efficiency, water efficiency sees big gains when we take simple steps. Just by using drip irrigation and sprinklers, we could save enough water to meet the needs of the expanding population.
Here are a few success stories, courtesy of Amory and Hunter Lovins, from their book "Natural Capitalism":
—Palo Alto, Calif., saved 27 percent of its water use by hiring college students to teach high-usage homeowners about ways to be more efficient.
—South Africa’s Kruger National Park saved 74 percent of its water and 52 percent of its electricity by installing meters, educating people and finding other simple solutions.
—Oregon farmers saved 10 to 15 percent of their water use, thanks to a three-hour visit by a water efficiency consultant.
"Like energy, it is much cheaper to buy efficiency than it is to buy water," Lovins says.
Let’s leave a little water for the next generation by using our water more wisely today.
Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning columnist and founder of the Wallkill River School in Orange County, N.Y. You can contact her at Shawn@ShawnDellJoyce.com