Drought relief gives pause for thought

January 2017 has been welcomingly wet for West USA. News images of cracked, dry ground and low reservoir levels has been replaced by bursting river banks and flooded streets.  California’s water reserves have been topped up by approximately 350 million gallons of water in the past few weeks. This time last year 43% of California was in ‘exceptional drought’. Now, as of 17th January 2017, only 2% of the state is deemed in ‘exceptional drought’.

California, Drought Monitor USA

Time to get the sprinklers back on the lawn, right?

Although it may feel as if the west of the USA has had its floodgates opened after a long, dry summer, the effects of the four year long drought will still be felt long after the last puddle evaporates. Groundwater over-pumping is one of California’s biggest issues and will take years to come right.

Relief has been felt across western USA states as the severity of the drought has lifted, but many parts, although not deemed in “exceptional drought” are still very dry, with restrictions in place.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has expressed its concern over climate impacts on agriculture and food supply. Agriculture, including crops, livestock and seafood contributes more than $300 billion to the United States economy each year.

Farmers, ranchers and the wider community are still struggling after losing huge amounts of pasture due to the drought. The harsh drought conditions have limited water resources for farmers, leaving them unable to water their crops. Some farmers aren’t even planting acres of farmland, figuring they won’t be able to sustain the crops anyway. Farmhands and other employees are also either losing their jobs or facing a reduction in hours because of the drought.

Even with the recent added moisture, cattle in California have become radically underweight due to grazing land becoming barren. Hay has also become exceedingly scarce and expensive. As a result, many ranchers have sold their cattle to eastern USA buyers.

What agricultural lessons can be learnt from previous droughts?

The Ecclesiastical proclamation that “there is nothing new under the sun” provides Western Americans with the opportunity to learn from other countries’ experiences of overcoming drought challenges in the past.

New Zealand, one such drought prone country, relies on water for its main contributor to economic stability – agriculture. Although portrayed as lush and green to the international market, the east coast of the South Island often struggles through dry, hot summers.

Farming and ranching communities in New Zealand have successfully tackled water management over the past five years, and have insights that could help overcome challenges facing America’s dry Western states today.

The biggest insight from the New Zealand agricultural community is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Even when the farmers, ranchers and households are willing to help conserve water, there is no standard for success if water use is not comprehensively measured. It is crucial to have measuring and monitoring strategies and infrastructure in place so water can be managed as efficiently as possible.

Policy makers need several years’ quality water data to inform water use guidelines that are fair for all users as well as conserve this precious resource. The sooner there is infrastructure in place to measure water use, the more data there will be to guide decision making.

Six insights for state agencies and regulators from New Zealand’s experience

  1. Insist on the highest quality technology and infrastructure. Accurate data is the key to a robust water management plan. Incorrect data is worse than no data.
  2. Bring industry and farming interest groups on board to build consensus on strategy and water monitoring approach. It is important to have ‘buy in’ from all stakeholders for a water management strategy to succeed.
  3. Grassroots level consultations across all stakeholder groups are imperative in generating a framework everybody can agree on.
  4. Create a ‘task force’ comprising farmer representative groups, industry leaders and water measurement service providers to arrive at a water management plan that works.
  5. Create tools to benchmark water use on farms at state level and county level, so users can self-identify as to how efficient their water consumption is compared to national / state / local averages.
  6. Partner with the best data collection providers. Seek references, and check if they’ve done this before (Water data collection and reporting) and what knowledge they bring to the table. An intelligent water network management setup that uses modern instrumentation and software, will generate high quality data and analysis that can help local agencies and authorities make more efficient and effective use of water resources. Leaks in public infrastructure or on private property are also easier to diagnose and fix.

To get more insights into why information is power when it comes to managing agricultural water resources, download the white paper ‘A Fortune in Every Drop’.

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