May 17, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Future of food production hinges on water

Ogallala Aquifer
Water resources in the Continental U.S., are threatened by climate change, groundwater overdraft and longstanding water quality issues. One example is the Ogallala Aquifer, which is found in parts of eight states. Data: USGS; Map: Axios Visuals

A team of 40+ USDA scientists has listed the most significant looming challenges facing water resources and agricultural production nationwide.

Why it matters: Their newly-released plan unlocks a 30-year roadmap for mitigating some of the leading issues imperiling water sustainability before they become full-blown crises.

What they found: According to a summary of their findings published Friday in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, the main challenges through the year 2050 are supply shortages, flood risk and water quality.

  • Led by scientists at the Agricultural Research Service, the article highlights how continued development of irrigated agriculture is "diminishing critical aquifers" as limited water resources will confront increasing demand under rising temperatures.

Threat level: The water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer — one of the world’s largest fresh groundwater sources — are already plummeting, per KMUW.

  • Much of the most agriculturally productive areas of the aquifer are facing risk of depletion by 2100 due to drought, farm irrigation and decades-long over-allocation.
  • "Water in the Ogallala Aquifer has been severely depleted, particularly in the southern end of the aquifer. Continuing typical water withdrawals puts the aquifer, and the agricultural economy that relies upon it, at risk," says Emile Elias, director at the USDA Southwest Climate Hub and lead author of the article.

Meanwhile: Wildfires and shifting climate patterns imperil water sources on forested lands, as reservoirs "face dwindling inflows and are filling with sediment, increasing flood risk and reducing their capacity to respond to drought," per the paper.

Zoom out: Climate change exacerbates water scarcity worldwide, which leads to agricultural declines that can trigger increasing food insecurity, according to a 2023 UN report.

What they're saying: "We don't want to lose a drop of water in the future. Every drop matters," says Teferi Tsegaye, co-author of the article and national program leader for water resources at the Agricultural Research Service.

  • "The future of food production is dependent on freshwater."

Of note: Solutions cited include green infrastructure, urban community gardens and vertical farming, as well as public-private partnerships for improved irrigation management and technologies that better monitor ecosystems supporting food production.

  • One example is the Soil and Water Assessment Tool, which is being used to devise strategies for improved water quality in Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

Yes, but: Despite decades of efforts, Chesapeake Bay's pollution problem hasn't seen much remediation, which the Daily Record reports is due to rising sea levels, warming waters and budget declines.

  • Climate change has made a goal to shrink phosphorus runoff into Lake Eerie 40% by 2025 "obsolete," per the Toledo Blade.
  • And a study published in March finds that fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, which is warming at twice the rate of the global ocean, are seeing significant impacts from shifts to species ranges, habitat loss and algae blooms.

The bottom line: "There are big challenges, but I also believe we have the ability ... to find solutions to have a food-secure future within the United States and across the globe," says Elias.

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