Research will help ag survive droughts

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

California water regulators last Friday accepted an offer from farmers with the state’s most senior water rights to reduce their water use.

Those farmers, who hold riparian water rights in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, told state officials they would voluntarily reduce their consumption by 25 percent.

By doing that, the farmers demonstrated to their fellow Californians that the burden created by four years of drought needs to be shared.

It is an attitude that others around the West would do well to emulate.

It’s dry in California — and much of the West. Parts of Oregon and Idaho are parched, and drought has been declared across all of Washington state. Making matters worse — much worse — is the fact that most of the scant mountain snowpacks melted during abnormally warm winter and spring weather. Some reservoirs are starting the irrigation season well below their normal levels, and forecasters are reminding irrigators that they will not be replenished by snow melt, as they normally are.

Irrigation districts are making the difficult choices between shutting down for part of the season to conserve water, pumping groundwater, fallowing land or carrying on and hoping for the best.

In Washington state, some irrigators have offered other farmers $500 an acre to use their water just to get through the growing season.

More than anything, the Big Dry of 2015 points out the desperate need for more water storage around the West. A glance at the USDA Drought Monitor shows that only a few areas west of the Rocky Mountains have escaped the drought. Storing the water that does fall would go a long way toward getting farmers through the driest parts of the year.

But construction of new reservoirs, dams, lake taps and other storage projects will take years, if not decades. Californians have already approved borrowing billions of dollars to build two more reservoirs, but the start of construction is nowhere in sight.

Other projects will rely on federal and state backing. Considering that the federal treasury has been running in the red since the 1990s and most states are tapped out, financial help for these projects may not be forthcoming.

In the meantime, farmers and others in agriculture need to ponder their future. Innovation, efficiency and re-thinking cropping systems need to be a part of the overall conversation.

In Idaho, for example, University of Idaho Extension irrigation specialist Howard Neibling is helping farmers avoid a water call by reducing their consumption. He said in some irrigation systems 16 percent of water losses are due to leaks. In others, worn nozzles, evaporation and uneven distribution waste water.

Researchers are developing low-water techniques for irrigation, breeding drought-resistant crops and building high-tech monitors to determine which plants need moisture. Some in California have developed ways to save as much as 50 percent of water use.

Before, such research was interesting. Now, it’s vital.

This drought will eventually give way to a more normal precipitation pattern. But there will be other droughts. They are an unfortunate part of Western agriculture.

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