Drought is among the biggest dangers to the U.S. New water technology is making its way across the country
Hydroponics and regenerative agriculture are two methods the U.S. West is using to keep food growing.
If you’re having a salad for lunch today, chances are it comes from the “Salad Bowl of the World,” the lush farmland that stretches for some 90 miles across California’s Salinas Valley. Lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, celery, cauliflower and more grow in abundance there, a source of pride and profits for farmers who work the land.
But none of it would be possible without water, and that’s the problem. The Salinas Valley is at the epicenter of a multi-year drought that’s as bad as it has ever been. Vegetables are a commodity, and as water grows scarce, price shocks could follow.
Here’s an ominous example of scarce: California’s snowpack, on June 1, was 0% of its long-term average, according to the state’s Department of Water Resources. Zero.
That’s a big problem because melting snow provides roughly 75% of the state’s agricultural water. On top of that, rain is rare. The Valley typically gets about 15 inches per year; in the first six months of 2021, about a third of that has fallen, including just four-tenths of one inch of rain between April and June.
It’s not just Salinas Valley, of course. Farmers everywhere are feeling the pinch as water dries up. Gabriel Castenada, who manages Humberto Castañeda Produce in nearby Sonoma County, planted only 17 acres of crops this year — mostly heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and watermelon — instead of the usual 180 acres.
“We weren’t sure how much water we were going to get,” he said in an interview. “We have to be very conservative with every drop.”
Other growers are ripping up water-guzzling alfalfa plants and almond trees —California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds, a $6 billion industry. And ranchers practically everywhere are culling their livestock amid reports that 60% of the nation’s cow herd is now “in some level of drought or dryness.”
Is this the new normal? A combination of longer, more intense heat waves, less precipitation, and surging population growth in the West and Southwest — Arizona, Nevada and Utah were among the three-fastest growing states according to 2020 Census data — are straining water supplies across a vast area encompassing one-third of the continental United States. The latest map rendering by U.S. Drought Monitor shows “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions stretching from the Canadian to Mexican borders, and everything west of the Rockies, including the entire, and heavily populated, West Coast.
Demographics and a changing climate are just two problems. Many of America’s water woes also result from years of under investment in critical infrastructure. With some exceptions, the nation’s 2.2 million mile network of underground pipes is so dilapidated that there’s a water main break in this country every two minutes. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which supplies this data point, says this costs us six billion gallons of treated water every day. That’s the daily equivalent of 18 gallons of water for every man, woman and child in this country. More on this in a moment.