Ignoring the water problem is no longer an option

Ignoring the water problem is no longer an option

The water crisis is about much more than water. Last of a three-part series. Read part one and part two in this series.

“The nexus of water, food and energy will define our quality of life in this century.”

That’s Jay Famiglietti’s take on the world we will live in. He is senior water scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Imbalances between such things as water availability, quality, value determination — and a myriad of related and messy issues — make it so.

Speaking at this year’s National Institute of Animal Agriculture (NIAA) annual conference, he said that though there’s enough potable water to go around, gaps in policy, infrastructure and management mean currently, too many have too little. Worldwide, groundwater is being siphoned at unsustainable rates, and in some of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world.

Solving the water issues requires more than just water discussions.
By Robert Cianflone, Getty Images

Even in areas where water availability and quality are not current problems, Famiglietti explained in an earlier TED talk, “… We still have a crisis of management. Is water being effectively managed, or do governments even have the commitment to delivering water to their population?”

Then he says there’s the crisis of economics. “Is there sufficient wealth to build and maintain the infrastructure that’s required to treat and distribute water?”

There’s the crisis of understanding as well. “Do people and our elected officials really understand what’s going on with water locally, regionally, nationally and globally?” he asks.

We think different

Discussing the issues here in the U.S., let alone finding solutions, is complicated by cultural evolution.

“The 21st-century American water wars have nothing to do with water,” says Aubrey Bettencourt, California Water Alliance executive director. “I would say the root challenge to the ongoing debates in these arenas is the societal shift from an agrarian society and agrarian majority to a consumer majority; that the new relationship between the reactive agrarian minority and the susceptible consumer majority increasingly determines the outcomes of water policies.”

Bettencourt was also speaking at this year’s NIAA conference. She explained that most American consumers are at least four to six generations removed from production agriculture and their food supply. Their motivations are typically different than those of agricultural producers.

“Today’s consumers are emotionally based,” Bettencourt says. “They don’t change willingly but must be, and are, constantly convinced on emotional grounds to change their behavior and to make purchases. As such, they’re more likely to support, oppose or demand specific policies, criteria or regulation on the industries from which they consume.”

Advocacy organizations outside of agriculture understand this and have proven masters of understanding the consumer psyche and affecting consumers’ attitudes.

“These organizations market to consumers, and communicate with them in the consumers’ own emotional language,” Bettencourt says. “Appealing to their need for positive social contribution, policy interest groups activate consumers to flex their purchasing power, and to share their advocate voice to demand government policies on agriculture and other natural resources.”

The social information age amplifies the ensuing cycle of proposed regulation, public support recruitment, political popularity, political priority and eventual implementation.

“The notion that it takes a regulation or a mandate to change agricultural practices is based on the dangerously ignorant myth held by the majority that agriculture will never do its job correctly, morally, efficiently or consciously,” Bettencourt explains. “So, to correct agriculture’s ways, to bring it into the modern age, to change and control the culture and practices of agriculture, increased public attention and demand is given to regulate the resources on which farming depends, for our own good.”

Solutions require cooperation

“American agriculture is in a reactive position for the first time in human history,” Bettencourt says. “For the first time, agricultural producers have to explain their role in society and why it’s important. For the first time, they must justify what they do.”

Rather than a battle with consumers, though, Bettencourt emphasizes that the dialogue surrounding water use is a war waged with advocacy groups for the hearts and minds of consumers.

“The future of American agriculture depends on water availability, and water availability depends on being an advocate,” Bettencourt says. “As an industry, we must get ahead of the mandates and regulations, embrace and pioneer water use technology wherever beneficial … It’s time to speak with authenticity, confidence, gratitude and persistence. Say what you want to say. Say it clearly. Say it with confidence … Represent the industry with confidence.”

Famiglietti explains there’s no reason for agricultural producers to shy away from the fact that agricultural production requires water use.

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“Rather, take ownership, clearly articulate the issues, and become industry leaders and stewards. How can we raise the best product while having the least environmental impact?” he asks. “We need to change the conversation: from urban versus agriculture, from farmers versus fish, from economic growth versus the environment, to how much water does society want to allocate to produce food, or to how can we produce the best or most using the least amount of water.”

Bettencourt used California’s current historic drought to illustrate how the water crisis places consumers at increased risk, even here in the United States.

Heading into this spring, Bettencourt — a third-generation California farmer — explained the state anticipated fallowing at least 800,000 acres. There was already 40% unemployment in the state’s largest agriculture counties, the result of what she termed natural drought and water mismanagement. Food costs were expected to increase as much as 25%. Utility rates grew significantly as the volume of hydroelectric power declined.

“Caught in the crosshairs are not just family farms and related industries, but the millions of poor and working-class consumers who cannot afford the special-interest brand of social consciousness, but live paycheck to paycheck, seeking the healthiest life they can afford,” Bettencourt says.

The clock is ticking

Ignoring the problem is no longer an option.

“The water cycle and water availability are changing,” Famiglietti says. “Water availability will become progressively more strained, while increasing extremes in flooding and drought threaten both animal exposure and the supply chain.”

In his TED talk, Famiglietti suggested the need for more efficient irrigation, more crop selection — including more saline-tolerant and drought-tolerant crops — improved pricing models, and national and global water policies. He also pointed out that many of the technologies needed to monitor and manage water more efficiently already exist.

“The problems we face today and that your industry faces in the future are of such concern, and so large in scope, that it behooves you to think from now about the second half of the century, because some of the changes you may need to make, or changes in water rights and water law, will take that long — because it’s very complicated,” Famiglietti says.

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