Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association

Water and Agriculture: A Collection of Essays

February 20th, 2012 | Posted in: News, Sustainable Farming

Water conservation is a critical part of eco-conservation. And to that end, we gathered Wisconsin potato growers, residents, scientists and elected officials to share their opinions on the importance of preserving the Central Wisconsin aquifer — and how we can all best share the aquifer. Those essays have been collected in a book entitled, “Walking on Water: Essays for the Central Sands.”

Following is Justin Isherwood’s Foreword from the book, “Water is the Issue.”

In general terms we all know the stats. Water covers 70% of the earth’s surface. The earth’s water is 97% salt water and 3% fresh with 2% in the form of ice and 1% in surface and groundwater. Agriculture uses 70% of the fresh water consumed globally. Growing human population continues to increase the need for fresh water and expanded agricultural production. Agriculture has to meet increasing demand for food, feed, and fiber, and now energy. Water problems are occurring all across the globe as supplies become more limiting.

Water and public policy is a front burner debate in many parts of the world, and it is an evolving issue in Wisconsin. We’ve seen many elements of change in our water policies. A resource we once took for granted, within a generation we’ve seen water qualities improve dramatically. Public water management has taken the initiative of duplicating natural systems to reduce or mitigate water problems. Levees on the Mississippi are being reengineered to dissipate the flood stage over a larger area and reduce flooding and structural damage. Original oxbow bends in rivers, once straightened by the Army Corps of Engineers, are now being recreated to slow flood accumulation and reduce surge velocity.

Swamps and marshes were once considered wastelands and sources for disease vectors such as mosquitos, but are now known contributors to improved water supply and quality. Cities like Boston are rebuilding wetlands to buffer tidal floods and heavy rain events. The risk of street flooding combined with sewage overflows into open water is being minimized through municipal wetlands that intercept runoff and minimize potential for untreated sewage to reach surface waters. One acre of wetland stores 1.5 million gallons of rainwater.

Water has a ritual presence in most human societies. We gain a sense of place and self from water. Water serves a canonical role in a majority of the world’s religions. Jews and Christians baptize with water. Shinto considers water the most intimate act of deity. Muslims wash their feet before entering the mosque. Hindus consider the Ganges a holy river that flows beyond earth to the realm of Moksha.

Water, shortage and excess, has its extremes. In the lee side of the Andes is Chungungo, Chile, a small village where water must be trucked from 30 miles away. Naturalists first noted eucalyptus trees flourished on the mountain ridge overlooking the town, catching and condensing the nightly fog in their leaves and branches. To mimic this, a high-tech plastic mesh has been installed at this same location to harvest the fog and collect water droplets. The collected water is piped to the village each day. Eighty fog collectors yield 2,600 gallons per day. This is new wealth for Chungungo. Local water consumption has doubled to eight gallons per person per day. The water system requires no energy.

The mighty Colorado River no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez at Baja. The Aral Sea in Central Asia, complete with its ships and fishery, has disappeared as this massive fresh water body has been depleted by Soviet-era irrigated cotton projects. In northern India, the ground aquifer is dropping at a foot per year due to expansive agricultural use and limited recharge. The Ogallala aquifer of the High Plains irrigates a third of the nation’s food and fiber, some 175,000 square miles with 5 trillion gallons pumped annually. A Texas Tech study demonstrated the Ogallala generated $1.6 billion and 17,000 jobs in a 26-county area of Texas alone. The Ogallala is nonrechargeable, and pumping is restricted or unavailable in some areas.

Technology has advanced center pivot irrigation so that corn and potato yields have doubled in Central Wisconsin, but both are dependent on the Central Wisconsin aquifer. Even a moist region with 32 inches of nominal rainfall can suffer a use/recharge deficit if use is unheeding. The purpose of this little book is to begin conversations that will ensure the preservation of the Central Wisconsin aquifer. A select group of citizens face the responsibility of a shared aquifer. Beyond lie many questions. What is the role of the agriculture sector in maintaining the aquifer? What is the responsibility of the municipalities to safeguard the resource? What does the science of aquifer management suggest? In the end, can we agree that a parity water level is possible, and can we identify optimal water use for promoting economic activity, protecting the water resources, and promoting happy and productive communities?

These essays present opinions on the water debate already under way. The editorial collection plate was passed around the community that share this resource to see what farmers, residents, scientists and elected officials would throw in the pot. Walking on Water is a litmus test to ascertain our collective state of mind on the water issue in Central Wisconsin. The backdrop is stark, with potential long-lasting negative effects to the surface environments, altered qualities of life, and risk of overwhelming the water resource until it fails.

The aquifer in Central Wisconsin is not the Ogallala. As an aquifer it’s not really that big, and recharge from annual precipitation is essential for its existence. It is ours to keep, sustain and nurture for generations to come. These letters are matters of conscience, and the authors have biases. Those of us in agriculture know what we accomplished with our share of the aquifer. Sharing this resource doesn’t come easy. Some of these essays reflect this fact. The hope is to find common threads, common goals, despite the disparate points of view.

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