Negotiating the Water Cycle

September 1, 2022

The headlines read “Europe’s rivers run dry,” “Record drought in Italy’s Po Valley threatens water supplies and food production,” “Half of China hit by drought in worst heatwave on record,” “Central Valley California farmland acres left unplanted due to water shortages,” “Colorado River states fail to meet federal deadline on restricting water use.” 

Droughts are the result of reduced precipitation over a long period of time. Persistent reduced snowpack and rainfall have cascading impacts on soil, rivers, trees, vegetation, animals, insects, natural and human landscapes. Trees and grasses dry up, becoming tinder for wildfires; vegetation and roots lose capacities to hold the soil in place. Without vegetation, a dry landscape has little protection from wind, rain and melting snows to slow the weathering, flooding, and deep erosion they can produce. When vegetation-water cycle relationships are out of balance, grazing lands, croplands, forests, streams and lakes lose their resiliency and capacity to maintain the seasonal life cycles necessary to support agroecosystems and natural landscapes.

Agricultural drought is caused by lack of soil moisture; hydrological drought occurs when rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers run dry or have very low levels. Managing the water cycle is a high priority system-level action that Solutions from the Land 21st Century Agricultural Renaissance report emphasizes as mission critical if agriculture and our food systems are to successfully meet the many needs of society now and into the future. How we negotiate and prioritize competing sectors’ demand for water resources will take cooperation, compromise and uncommon collaboration. The urgency for collaborative actions has never been greater. For example, the 1922 Colorado River Compact divided the annual flow of 16 million acre-feet among Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada. After 20 years of drought, recent estimates of the Colorado River volume are at 11 million acre-feet. This ominous shortfall is magnified by the outsized human footprint in this region since 1922-expanding populations, industries, and systems of agriculture that have been essential sources of fruits, vegetables, and animal protein for the U.S. and beyond.

California, the American West, and wide swaths of the U.S. are not alone in failing to negotiate workable, long-term solutions to managing the earth’s water cycles- drought, flooding, and wildfires. These interconnected, dynamic systems are one of the most difficult challenges of the century ahead. And as we noted in Agriculture Cannot be the Reservoir for Growth it’s time for a new way forward.

Sen Michael Bennet of Colorado echoes SfL call to action, “we’re going to have to have imagination, we’re going to have to have collaboration, we’re going to have to  have leadership” if these western states are to negotiate solutions for how to allocate and manage the river resource  Bennet: U.S. shouldn’t dictate Colorado River water cuts – Governors’ Biofuels Coalition (governorsbiofuelscoalition.org)

Managing the water cycle is not just a “California” problem. It is a local, national and global problem that threatens food and nutritional security, drinking water, health, and safety of all populations. We must stop kicking the can down the road and pay attention to the water cycle in our own backyard, the watershed where we live and work. SfL urges public policy leaders, states, and communities to actively involve farmers in conversations and actions that acknowledge and prioritize through funding, infrastructure, and practices the extreme variations in the hydrologic cycle and their impacts at farm and watershed levels. Changes in the water cycle are complex, iteratively driven by changes in weather and climate, land uses and human land, water, and water reuse management. While pressure is growing to ‘solve’ current urban and environmental water shortages by simply moving water away from irrigated agriculture, a diversified water management portfolio that provides benefits to multiple use sectors is needed. We must work together and build collaborations that emphasize water conservation, water recycling, watershed management, desalination, and water transfers, but concurrently prioritize investments in modernized conveyance, groundwater storage, and surface storage projects. The uncertainties in the water cycle will not go away, but we can be much better prepared for drought, flooding and reduce forest wildfires while ensuring food and nutrition security if we act now.

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