Water. We take it for granted. We assume that when we turn on the faucet we’ll have enough to sustain us—keep us clean, cook our food, quench our thirst, water our lawns and wash our cars. We also assume that grocery stores will always provide enough bread, fruit, vegetables and meat to feed us.
We may not always consider, however, that meeting all of those goals requires a sometimes delicate balancing act to guarantee adequate water to produce our food and flush our toilets.
That equilibrium will become even more difficult as populations grow and water demand increases, says Brian Hurd, New Mexico State University department of agricultural economics and agricultural business.
Hurd, addressing a Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Water Conference in Santa Fe earlier this week, said balancing the needs of various water users will require unprecedented cooperation and innovation.
“To balance is to value; we can’t balance unless we can weigh,” said Hurd, adding water policy makers will need to determine how to value water use before they can determine how to allocate it.
For agriculture, users must determine the number of acre feet of water necessary to produce an acre of any crop. They also have to determine opportunity costs to differentiate one use from another. They need to identify the total economic value of water and achieve economic efficiency in allocations.
Users and policymakers, he said, must “recognize the resource value and make good decisions. The total economic value is a powerful concept.”
Agriculture will need to develop more efficient water use methods. He said farms and ranches account for some 70 percent of both ground and surface water use in New Mexico. It may be possible that agriculture could be called on to transfer water to other users in time of drought—“not all of agriculture’s water but a percentage,” he said. “Agriculture needs to be reasonable to (consider) different proposals.”
He said cities are already trying to balance supply and demand. “El Paso and Santa Fe have good stories to tell on water balancing.”
Agriculture also faces climate and weather challenges in determining water needs. Changes in the Rio Grande stream flow, for instance, are of crucial concern. Seasonal flow is altered by drought.
A warmer climate affects water demand. “High temperature dries things out and reduces runoff, and that affects downstream users. Irrigation demand also increases.”
Those changes, Hurd said, alter traditional agriculture and affect rural communities.
Drought also affects public perception. “The drought that’s deeply imbedded across the country may mean people lose sight of where their food comes from. A lot of water is included in food production. Consumers see farmers using a lot of water, and they don’t understand.”
Agriculture must do a better job of communicating the importance of water for food production. He said water is “a renewable resource—for the most part.”
But it also is a limited resource and requires balanced allocation to provide adequate supplies to all users. “There is something of a battle between environmental, urban and ag users,” he said. “They are all in the system, and we need balance.”
Agriculture must be cognizant of that need but so does society in general. Hurd said agriculture has proven to be an efficient user of resources and “a steward of the land. But agriculture still must be profitable.”
He said the current debate on the farm bill “is puzzling.” Ag policy is being restructured to risk management and subsidy through insurance. “People who voted against cap and trade requested climate risk coverage and don’t acknowledge that climate change exists. But they ‘de facto’ put it into the farm bill.”
Jeff Bader, northern district director, NMSU Cooperative Extension Service, said networking and education will be crucial aspects of water management. “Water is the most important issue facing agriculture today,” he said in his welcoming remarks. “We have to address the importance of water issues.”
Robert Anaya, Santa Fe County commissioner, complemented SARE as “investing in groundbreaking research and education,” and for promoting sustainability “before it was in.”
The global economy has fostered change in the U.S. labor force. “Ultimately, we lost (some) workforce to outsourcing,” he said. “We can ill afford to outsource agriculture. We must continue to do what we have done for generations to sustain (U.S.) agriculture as our primary source of food production.”
Stephanie Walker, NMSU vegetable specialist and Western SARE professional development coordinator, said the conference featured some of the top resource management experts in the West to discuss water issues. Stakeholders in New Mexico have identified water as a priority. “That concern is shared by many other states,” she said. “We know we can do better.”
She said the conference was designed to discuss “ways to preserve this valuable resource for future generations.”
The conference, “Water: The foundation of Agricultural Sustainability,” was sponsored by the USDA Western SARE and New Mexico State University.