Agriculture Water Use, Consumer Practices and the Drought

California is still in a drought. Surprised? You shouldn't be; this has been all over the news for months now. The lack of ground and other water sources is concerning, and so even though Samantha and I have both written about behavior modification and the megadrought future of California, there is more to be said about what you can do and what others, especially those in agriculture, should be doing to mitigate the dry conditions in the state.

Governor Brown has cracked down on water allotments, reducing potable urban water usage by 25%. Final decisions about agricultural water use have yet to be determined. About 80% of water consumed in the state of California goes to agriculture and the state's farmers need all that water because they supply much of the country’s produce, yet the industry has already seen cutbacks on surface water allotments and will likely see more.

Some farmers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river delta have said they will voluntarily give up 25% of their allotments if the government does not ask for additional cutbacks. This is huge because water rights in this region date back a couple of centuries and are fiercely protected.

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The state may have a decision on the agricultural water cuts soon, but how significant the cuts will be is not known. Even though there are many farmers who have said they would take a voluntary cut, there is no way to know how many actually will and who will wait to reduce their usage when final decisions and programs are developed. Many hope that the farmers who are volunteering water cuts will inspire others to follow suit before final decisions are made.

Farmers may need to rethink their crops as well. Some crops are so water intensive that it will not make sense to grow them as the drought conditions perpetuate. One such crop is alfalfa – the reason why an excessive amount of water is needed to produce a burger. Plus, a lot of our alfalfa crops are sent to China for cattle feed, so American consumers cannot even reap the benefits!

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As a consumer, you, too, can choose to buy and eat less water intensive produce. I stopped drinking Almond milk when I learned it takes about a gallon of water to produce each almond. That is quite a guzzler! And almonds aren't even the biggest guzzler in the nut family; walnuts are far worse!

How can you figure out how much water your food takes to produce? Check out this handy interactive infographic by the New York Times and prepare yourself to be shocked. Try participating in Meatless Monday. Try millet instead of rice. We can all make a difference to mitigate the effects of the drought whether or not we live in California. When will you start?

Agriculture Has A Leading Role In Energy, Water Efficiency

A short drive from my desk in Fresno will lead me to an almond orchard, a vineyard, a dairy farm or in the middle of a field of strawberries. Agriculture is a $20 billion per year enteprise in the San Joaquin Valley, and proof of that spreads in all directions.

This is the nation's salad bowl, but feeding the masses comes with a price: Farming consumes large amounts of energy and water.

Pumps, refrigeration and other farm-related uses accounted for 13% and 11% of the total electricity consumed in Fresno and Kern counties respectively in 2009, according to the California Energy Commission.

And water is so precious and vital that at least 160 water-related businesses have a presence in the Valley. It is no coincidence that Fresno State University has an internationally known water and energy research facility, and that Clovis just hosted a major water conference.

So, it makes sense that growers would be leaders in water and energy conservation. Farmers in California lead the nation in the use of renewable energy, and Clean Technica writes in this report about a farmer's inexpensive hydro-powered invention that replaces the diesel engine that powered his irrigation system. The story also notes that conservation within the agriculture industry has helped reduce water use in the United States even though the population increased.

The alfalfa farmer, Roger Barton , estimates the device saves him about $3,500 annually. "The consumer sector has a few things to learn from agriculture when it comes to conservation," writes Tina Casey, the Clean Technica reporter.

Clean energy is more than solar arrays and wind farms. Conservation and efficiency are big components, and the San Joaquin Valley, with the involvement of its cutting-edge farmers, could become a showcase of water and energy efficiency and technology.

The Greening of California Farms

California farmers just keep getting greener.

Growers, packers and shippers - and dozens of those dot the bountiful San Joaquin Valley of Central California - are increasingly discovering advantages to renewable energy, predominately solar.

This Packer story notes that three more farming enterprises - Live Oak Farms of LeGrand, DeBenedetto Orchards of Chowchilla and Henry Mesple Farms of Fresno - are installing solar systems to help power packing and cold-storage operations, headquarters and water pumps.

These projects are more evidence that California farmers, who already lead the nation in renewable energy, are serious about cutting their carbon footprints and their energy bills.

Consider this quote to The Packer by Bob Giampaoli, managing partner of Live Oak Farms: "Sustainability has been a priority for Live Oak Farms since our first harvest."

It also makes sense economically. Water pumps and other farm-related uses accounted for 13% and 11% respectively of the energy consumed in Fresno and Kern counties in 2009, according to figures we've cited.

Renewable energy, particularly solar, makes sense in the San Joaquin Valley in other ways too. We have lots of sun, ample land for solar arrays, lots of flat roofs for rooftop systems, access to the transmission grid and sky high power bills.

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More California Farmers Embracing Renewable Energy

As major users of energy, America's farms are natural candidates for renewable-energy efforts. That is especially true here in the San Joaquin Valley, where farming is a $20 billion per- year enterprise, temperatures hit triple digits, power bills are sky high and air pollution ranks among the worst in the nation.

As it turns out, farmers, especially in California, have made substantial gains in the use of alternative-energy sources. With about 25% of all facilities, California led the nation in 2009 with 1,956 farms and ranches producing renewable energy, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Solar dominated, with 1,906 California farmers using photovoltaic and thermal solar panels. The majority of those - more than 64,000 panels - were installed since 2005. Wind energy was used on 134 farms in California, while methane digesters were installed and used on 14 properties.

Solar power also has blossomed on farms nationally over the last four years. Prior to 2000, only 18,881 solar panels were on farms and ranches. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 108,000 panels were installed.

"Farmers and ranchers are increasingly adopting renewable-energy practices on their operations, and reaping the important economic and environmental benefits," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Farmers in nearly every state reported savings on their energy bill. The survey also noted that subsidies and other sources helped finance some of the installation cost. In California, about 41% of the average $79,000 cost of installing solar came from outside sources.

All this makes me wonder what the future holds. Technological advances, such as this small-scale biomass project with ultra-low emissions suitable for urban areas, are coming fast, and the price of solar continues to fall. Some people predict parity is just around the corner. Possibly in 2012.

And one has to wonder if increasing oil prices, and the increasing realization from military and Big Business that green is good, will spur more energy-saving and renewable efforts among California farmers and corporations.

Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have adopted some cool renewable projects - such as this grape grower in Delano - and I'm betting more are on the horizon.

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