Agricultural sustainability is at the forefront of environmental concerns, and one of the greatest concerns of all is the sustainability of water.
GAP, or good agricultural practices, delineate how agricultural producers can best grow the food the world needs with as little detrimental environmental impact as possible. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations includes in its criteria of good agricultural practices the following concerns:
- Careful management of water resources
- Efficient use of water for crop and pasture production
- Use of efficient irrigation methods
- Managing water tables
- Managing ground and soil water
- Improving soil structure
- Using crop and soil water monitoring techniques
- Providing adequate, safe, and clean water for livestock
Some view GAPs as impractical and unattainable. However, GAPs actually make sense once they are embraced and implemented. The result is often higher productivity and profits for the grower, along with definite environmental and sustainability benefits.
Water Sustainability in a Changing World
Regardless of the stance on climate change and its effect on the environment, there remains a large gap in understanding water resources and water needs. The National Science Foundation says that one of the most “urgent challenges facing the world today is ensuring an adequate supply and quality of water in light of both burgeoning human needs and climate variability and change.”
The foundation, which describes water sustainability as “one of the most pressing problems of the millennium,” seeks ways of bringing together information on “atmospheric, terrestrial, aquatic, oceanic, and social processes” to help predict the best manner of managing water resources.
There is a delicate balance between producing sufficient food and protecting the environment for future generations. The Environmental Protection Agency sets forth several considerations in water sustainability in farming operations: /
- Improving on-farm water retention by using soil amendments such as manure, food scraps, or other “waste” materials, which not only fertilize the soil but also help it retain moisture
- Tail water return systems
- Irrigation scheduling
- Irrigation drip system implementation to deliver water to plants’ root systems rather than distributing it through sprinklers
- Increasing water supplies through rainwater catchment systems
Real World Water Sustainability
Many areas with high agricultural land use depend upon irrigation systems to deliver water to their crops. Mexico’s Sonora region is quite arid. The sun shines throughout most of the year, meaning that little rain falls in the region.
Watering plants growing in the region sometimes entails the use of sprinklers or irrigation trenches. However, many growers now use a more efficient method called drip irrigation. Gilberto Salazar’s agricultural operations employ plastic tubes placed under the soil and near the roots of the plants. The water used in drip irrigation may come from various sources, such as wells, and typically goes through some filtering processes prior to use in the system. The tubes, or drip lines, allow water to reach the places it is really needed; water dripped onto the surface often evaporates quickly, resulting in less water reaching the plant.
Agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of fresh water withdrawal. Despite storms and flooding, water shortages remain a constant concern in many regions. Finding conservation methods for water sustainability must become an integral part of any agricultural operation.