Water Woes In 2022

David Trammel's picture

Short term push for profits trump long term sustainability every time it seems any more.

"The Next Disaster Coming to the Great Plains"

One myth about aquifer decline is that conservative rural farmers are solely to blame for this self-destructive loss. This is not true. Instead, farmers’ choices to continue pumping groundwater reflect a wider system of finance, profiteering, and resource consumption. Many independent Plains farmers scrape by, break even, or lose money to grow irrigated crops. Depending on yearly market fluctuations, the earnings from corn, alfalfa, and wheat may not cover the costs of production. These losses are papered over by federal farm subsidies, crop insurance programs, and bank loans, aid that compels farmers to double down on wasteful practices. To make up losses, some farmers cultivate more acres. This does not always improve their income, but it does trap farmers in an irrational cycle of debt and waste, glut commodity markets, and drain the aquifers.

Corporate profiteering is a major driver of depletion. Big industries, their shell companies, and distant investors have displaced many family farms here over the past three decades. Absentee owners control about 60 percent of the land around my family’s farm. Some of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants, mega-dairies, and ethanol factories have moved in. They pay nothing for the groundwater they use other than the cost of pumping it. Their profits are exported to shareholders and managers far away. When one area goes dry, such businesses just move to another, while local residents are left to face the growing bills.

Groundwater governance can also be sullied by corporate influence and exclusionary rules. The state of Kansas set up “groundwater management districts” to allow communities in regions of heavy water use to decide their own futures. In principle, it was a good idea. In practice, it caused the opposite result. Today, only those who own at least 40 acres of land or substantial water rights can vote on aquifer policy, which means the people allowed to decide the fate of the Ogallala Aquifer include the same producers and corporations that reap the most short-term benefits from draining it. Yet the majority of rural Kansans are excluded from the processes that will determine the long-term futures of their families and communities. The burdens fall most heavily on those already struggling to make ends meet.

Together, these dynamics form one of the great groundwater swindles of our time. Rural people and lands are being exploited and then blamed for the conditions of their own marginality. Corporations reap the reward and spread distrust and division to do so. Failures of policy, democracy, and perception turn into an environmental calamity. Similar dramas of groundwater loss are spreading around the world. Most of the planet’s arid-region aquifers are in decline. As Earth warms and droughts intensify, these pressures will only increase.


How soon before we see another Dust Bowl situation? The clouds of dust went all the way to New York then.

I feel like this is one of those essentials too few people consider in their prep.

Drought has been a fixture in the high desert for some few years now. While we get the occasional wet winter, it hasn't been enough to fill reservoirs. This year is a perfect example, October wet with early snow in the mountains, November, very dry and a lot of that snow melted. December is looking better and while the snow hasn't been fantastic, we have almost received the necessary amount of precipitation in the form of rain to sort of make up for it. At least the ground is more saturated which is a good thing as snow melt will end up in the reservoirs.

For us in the high desert, finding ways to garden with less water is going to be very needful as well as growing less water thirsty crops. I use drip irrigation right now and mulch to preserve soil moisture, but I am wanting to experiment with sunken beds to see if I can save even more water, but haven't mustered the physical where withall to do all that digging. Steve Colman had a lot to say about water use in his book, Gardening When it Counts, but it takes more space then I have. I saw something just recently that might work in my situation, but now I can't remember where I saw it. I will have to start looking for it as we will be starting seeds soon.

kma's picture

Kay - thank you for the book mention. I just put it in my -to-read pile. I live in a wet, northern climate but am on sand so we have trouble keeping water in the soil. My first year at my house, I did a reverse hugelculture where I buried a lot of sticks in the beds and after a few years I find that I almost don't need to water other than the initial seedling period. We've gone through some dry spells and I haven't watered at all and everything has lived. I also throw more sticks in every time I put in seedlings to keep it going. YMMV.

lathechuck's picture

KMA - I've been burying sticks (sequestering carbon!) for a couple of years now, and I think it makes a difference. I also bury a lot of leaves. I think it's worth considering that when we bury a large number of small sticks, we create a air-pocket under the garden, which becomes a water-pocket after a big rain. So, it's not just the rotting wood & leaves that absorbs moisture, but open spaces, too. A couple of weeks ago, in fact, I was out "sequestering carbon" from a dead apricot tree, and was startled to notice how dry the soil was. Here in mid-Maryland, winter should be wet, but the soil at Christmas was ideal for digging: moist enough to free the rocks, but dry enough not to cling to the shovel. For some time, I've been smug about "drought is not a mid-Atlantic problem", but now I'm reconsidering.
Hugelkultur, to the extent that I've read about it, seems to require no-tilling of the soil, but I always need to cut back the tree roots that would invade my veggie plots and steal their water. Maybe I shouldn't have put the pear trees so close to the garden, but it's too late now.

Ken's picture

Having done a Seed Bank garden on glacial till (sand, gravel, silt) for nearly a decade, I found that sand, for all it's problems retaining water and leaching of nutrients, is still a far easier soil to work with than the clay that most of the rest of the island deals with. I mostly used horse manure (no bedding) for amending the sandy soil, as that's what I have available (4 adopted mustangs).

I'm not convinced about the hugelkultur concept, simply because I find plenty of buried sticks and roots that last for decades or more buried in the ground. I think that the key is building humus and that buried organic matter that is below the biologically active zone is going to break down very, very slowly. That said, I put well-rotted wood from the forest into the bottom of 50% of my horse trough container gardens before filling them up with composted manure. After one season, the chunks of wood are utterly unchanged. Not sure that they helped with water retention; I didn't have any problem with any of the 100 gallon containers drying out excessively fast. I know that I won't be putting wood into the soil of any containers that I intend to ever grow potatoes in again!

If I were trying to amend sandy soil over a decent size garden, I'd be tempted to try and find old round bales of hay that were too funky to feed to stock and are therefore cheap or free for the hauling. Then I'd 'unroll' the round bales, essentially creating a 6" thick layer of organic matter on top of the soil. Then, if I wanted to plant in it that year, I'd dig a 'pothole' for each plant and add decent compost into each hole before putting my seedlings in. If you are a rototiller person, by the next year, it should all be broken down enough to till. If you're a no-till gardener, I might try solarizing (tarp) the amended garden space and letting the worms do their work while killing the grass seeds in the hay. Depending on how fast the organic processes are in your area (largely a matter of warmth and moisture) you might even be able to plant fall crops by mid-summer and I have found that solarized soils are remarkably low on weeds for at least the first year or two. If you don't want to do plastic, confining a good size flock of hens on the rolled out hay for the winter would be a worthwhile experiment I suspect. When I 'chickenized' a garden space I had very low weed pressure for years afterward. I also thought the added P & K from the sprouted wheat that the chickens were being fed, might have improved the flowering crops the following year, but that could just be wishful thinking too. There are so dang many variables in gardening that it's difficult to pinpoint causes sometimes! That's just my 2 cents worth; all I know is what I've done and sometimes I'm not sure about that!

I have that book and like it, even if I don't use the widest spacings he suggests.

Ken's picture

Hi Kay - I went to college in Santa Fe and high school on the CRIT reservation in AZ, so I've seen a bit of gardening in desert climes. The folks at Native Seeds Search https://www.nativeseeds.org/ are a great resource for dry country gardening.

I have seen but not tried myself (no need) the trick of planting garden rows in-between lines of straw bales. It takes up more garden space as you still need room to walk between the straw bales, but it's way easier than digging sunken beds and has a similar effect. You can even stretch row fabric or plastic over the bales for a mini-greenhouse effect. This might be really good, especially at night if you're at any significant elevation. When the straw bales get funky perhaps they could be broken and used for mulch or composted?

Well, there is a thoughty thought. I hadn't thought about using straw bales as the walls of a "sunken" bed, but I think it deserves more thought for sure. As for Native Seeds, I have purchased seed from them as well as perused their web site for information. They do good work.

David Trammel's picture

"China Is Running Out of Water and That’s Scary for Asia"

"China’s water situation is particularly grim. As Gopal Reddy notes, China possesses 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. Entire regions, especially in the north, suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East.

Thousands of rivers have disappeared, while industrialization and pollution have spoiled much of the water that remains. By some estimates, 80% to 90% of China’s groundwater and half of its river water is too dirty to drink; more than half of its groundwater and one-quarter of its river water cannot even be used for industry or farming.

This is an expensive problem. China is forced to divert water from comparatively wet regions to the drought-plagued north; experts assess that the country loses well over $100 billion annually as a result of water scarcity. Shortages and unsustainable agriculture are causing the desertification of large chunks of land. Water-related energy shortfalls have become common across the country.

The government has promoted rationing and improvements in water efficiency, but nothing sufficient to arrest the problem. This month, Chinese authorities announced that Guangzhou and Shenzhen — two major cities in the relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta — will face severe drought well into next year."

lathechuck's picture

I've heard that a lot of American farm land (and water) is used to grow alfalfa for export, so countries with money (like Saudi Arabia) can feed it to daily cows and have fresh local milk. I imagine China can do the same. Buy a farm, export the crop, rather than trying to move enough water around to grow it in their own country. Of course, when foreign buyers are bidding against American buyers, the price can only go up.

When you buy a product from China, you send them money that they can then use to bid against you in the food markets.

Ken's picture

The best book that I've ever read on the American west and water is 'Cadillac Desert' by Marc Reisner. Getting the history behind the current situation really helped me grasp the size and age of the predicament the entire southwest and high plains are in. Looking back even further to the end of the Wisconsin glaciation, roughly 11,000 years before the present, essentially the entire region is still drying out and with our perturbation of global climate systems, it seems likely to exacerbate the longer term drying trend. Seems like a poor choice for long term habitation unless you like sand... On the other hand, if you can figure out a way to live where others cannot, there will be much less competition for whatever there is; same MO that many desert adapted species use. There can be an austere beauty to some deserts and if things go sideways quickly in more clement and populated regions, you might miss some of the worst of the ensuing chaotic period by hanging around a little oasis in the middle of nowhere.