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ASA Talks Water Security

Good afternoon!

As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, our own Fred Vocasek participated in a symposium discussing water security at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

The American Society of Agronomy’s Water Security for Agriculture Talk Force recently sat down to answer a few questions. Other members of the task force include Rattan Lal and Gary “Pete” Peterson.

You can find part one of the interview here.

Part two of the interview can be found here. 


Treated wastewater often contains potential pollutants, such as nitrate, that require careful monitoring. Here, the movement of a blue tracer dye through the soil helps researchers determine whether pollutants are reaching the groundwater. Photo: Fred Vocasek.

From the interview:

Let’s start with the term water security. How do you define it?

Rattan: Maybe I can read our task force’s definition. It says: “Water security is present when all agricultural systems and the people dependent on them have physical, social, economic, and political access to adequate, clean, and safe water at all times to meet the physiological demands for high and sustained water productivity, ecosystem services, and healthy life of people and biota.”

What we really need to indicate is that this definition sounds very similar to some of the published definitions of food security. We tried to draw parallels between the two, so that water security and food security are kind of two sides of the same coin, if you want to put it that way.

So, of all the issues ASA could have chosen to focus on, why water security?

Fred: As you look around the landscape, a lot of people are involved in water issues: hydrologists, geologists, regulators, engineers. But in food production and agronomy—that’s where the water, the soil, and the plant root all come together, and that’s where we live and breathe. So I think we’re in a unique position as scientists and as practitioners to address some of the issues.

Rattan: I would add that water has no alternative. We have alternatives for oil and other resources, but water we must have—there is really no substitute for it. And at present water is a very scarce commodity, and it’s going to become even more scarce with the extreme events of climate change, such as what happened in the U.S. last summer. This drought that we are experiencing in the U.S. is a century drought. Really nothing like this has been experienced for over 80 years or more, and it’s due to the scarcity of water in the root zone. So, water security is really a very critical issue of the 21st century, and I think it is a very timely issue for the American Society of Agronomy to address.

Water Security

Fred Vocasek, senior lab agronomist at our Dodge City Laboratory, is taking part of a symposium focusing on water security on Feb. 17. Here’s a press release from the American Society of Agronomy.

Thirsty crops and hungry people: ASA symposium to examine realities of water security

Feb. 12, 2013 — You may have guzzled a half-liter bottle of water at lunchtime, but your food and clothes drank a lot more. The same half-liter that quenched your thirst also produces only about one square-inch of bread or one square-inch of cotton cloth.

Agriculture is in fact one of the world’s most insatiable consumers of water. And yet it’s facing growing competition for water from cities, industry, and recreation at a time when demand for food is rising, and water is expected to become increasingly scarce. Take irrigation, for example, says Fred Vocasek, senior lab agronomist with the nation’s largest crop consulting firm, Servi-Tech, Inc., in Dodge City, Kan.

“Irrigation withdrawals in the United States have stabilized since about 1980, but food consumption trends are following the upward population trend,” he says. “In other words, we have an increasingly hungry world with stable, or limited, freshwater supplies for food production. So, how do we keep pace with the widening gap?”

That’s the central question behind the symposium, “Green Dreams, Blue Waves, and Shades of Gray: The Reality of Water,” being held Sunday, Feb. 17 from 8:30-11:30 a.m. at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston, Mass.

The principal answers, say the symposium speakers, lie in three areas: Protecting our limited stores of freshwater in lakes, streams, and the ground (blue water); optimizing the use of water in crop production (green water); and reusing “waste” water (gray water) that has already served some purpose, such as food processing or energy production.

But those answers also raise a host of additional questions, says Vocasek, who co-organized the session with John Sadler of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. Who gets the water from an aquifer when farmers want it for irrigation, a gas company wants to pump it for fracking, or a city hopes to water a new golf course? How do we convince producers to adopt water-conserving technologies and practices when it’s not in their economic interest to do so? Why can’t farmers simply irrigate less?

The last question is especially complex because of the issue of “virtual” water—the hidden water in food that went into growing it, Vocasek says. If the United States, for instance, decides to conserve water in the Ogallala Aquifer by growing less corn and importing grain from China instead, it’s still consuming the virtual water that grew the Chinese corn. And because Chinese farmers use water much less efficiently than U.S. producers, by “trying to save water here, we may actually be wasting water on a global scale,” he says.

To portray the full extent of this complicated issue, “The Reality of Water” will begin with three talks on the three types of water—blue, green, and gray—and how they can be best used to ensure both adequate food and abundant water supplies for future generations. After those speakers “paint the picture,” Vocasek says, “the next three panelists will put the frame around that picture. Because there are limitations due to economics, there are limitations due to legal and ownership issues. And there are limitations due to day-to-day operations.”

For example, restricting water use in certain situations or regions can be a useful approach. But government agencies often can’t require landowners to cut consumption, because water rights—the right to divert water for specific purposes—are property rights in the United States. Reusing gray water to irrigate crops can also be tricky, because wastewater often carries salts or other contaminants that can damage the soil over time.

Yet another constraint is the large size of the average farm today, which often makes it unattractive for farmers to implement practices, such as cover crops and multi-year crop rotations, that help store water in the soil but take extra time and labor. “You can have a lot of plans,” Vocasek says, “but there are practicalities that we deal with, as well.”

This is why the symposium includes not only the perspectives of researchers and professors, but also crop consultants and professional agronomists who are “toe-to-toe” with the farmer, Vocasek adds.

“The theory, the research, the data are important, but you’ve got to have someone to help put it all together, because it can’t be done from a university or federal office,” he says. “It’s got to be done right there on the tractor seat.”

“Green Dreams, Blue Waves, and Shades of Gray: The Reality of Water” is sponsored by the American Society of Agronomy’s Water Security for Agriculture Task Force (chaired by Vocasek), and will be moderated by Ohio State University soil science professor, Rattan Lal.


Water Security for Agriculture

Senior Lab Agronomist Fred Vocasek recently traveled to Baltimore last week and chaired a meeting of the ASA ‘Water Security for Agriculture’ Task Force.

From Fred:

“The Task Force heard presentations from officials of the NRCS, USDA-Economic Research Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and the US-EPA.

“These officials discussed various policy issues regarding water quality, water use, and how they are impacted by production agriculture. On Tuesday, the Task Force began formulating actions to develop policy positions about water shortage, water excess, water quality, and the respective roles of agronomy and the agronomist. Water Security will be an ongoing effort by the Agronomy Society.”

Task Force members: Jim Gaffney (Biotech Affairs and Regulatory. Pioneer Hi-Bred Intl.), Bob Beck (Regional Agronomist, Winfield Solutions), Bill Heer (Agronomist, Kansas State University), Gary Peterson (Professor Emeritus, Colorado State University), and Karl Anderson (ASA Science Policy Office, Washington DC).

John Sadler (USDA-ARS Research Leader, Cropping Systems & Water Quality, University of Missouri), Bruce Knight (Strategic Conservation Solutions, Washington DC) and Neil Hansen (Professor of Agronomy, Colorado State University). Knight was Chief of the NRCS during the Bush administration.