After weeks of mostly grey rainy weather and sleep interrupted by tornado alerts, sunshine in the window feels like a blessing from the god of Spring. Ten plus inches of rain had all the animals hunched up in bunches staggering around in soggy coats, with droopy heads. Today they stand broadside to the sun, soaking in the warmth. The gardeners have all been droopy too, unable to get their hands dirty, early sets washed out, muddy lettuce and carefully prepared rows floated away.
Water is the essential ingredient of life and growth here on earth. As farmers we are especially attuned to the rain as a critical element for the land. Human bodies as a species are two thirds water; babies are three fourths water. The fluids that run through our veins are a version of the ocean, salty and designed to keep our cells alive.
Fresh water makes up only 2.5% of all water on earth, with two thirds of fresh water frozen in ice and snow. Use of fresh water in this country is coming under increased scrutiny as increasing needs are causing water shortages in many places. Americans use approximately 100 gallons of treated fresh water daily, mostly for toilets, laundry and bathing. The largest use of fresh water in the world is irrigation farming by industrial agriculture, over 70% of total human use. The bread basket of the United States central plains is heavily irrigated from the High Plains underground aquifer, supporting a $700 million farm economy. This aquifer is being depleted faster than nature can replenish it, and is projected to be completely depleted in 100 years or sooner.
Here in green Kentucky, it is hard to comprehend the bigger picture of water shortages facing the country and the world. But my brother in Tucson reports no rain this spring; my sister in San Diego is paying over $1.50 per gallon for water, piped from the mountain snow cover in Colorado. The western states have had drought conditions for 7-10 years. The lake reservoirs of Shasta and Mead are 40-60% below normal levels.
The San Joaquin-Sacramento valley delta, which was diked and developed into 60,000 acres of farms over 100 years ago is a source of over half of the vegetables, fruits and nuts for the rest of the country. This area sits near the Hayward earthquake fault and is overdue for a major quake. The water system for two thirds of California would be crippled and the food supply for the rest of the country would be disrupted.
Here in Kentucky, it would seem we have too much water rather than too little water. However our water problems are different but related to misuse of this precious resource. Most of Kentucky’s streams and rivers are contaminated with pesticides and sewer runoff. Mercury levels in streams in Kentucky are the fifth highest in the United States, primarily from coal fired electric plant discharge. Mercury is a known toxin to fetal health and the nervous system of young children. Water sheds in eastern Kentucky are at especially high risk from mountain removal contamination, and intensive industrial agriculture production in western Kentucky is impacting water quality. Heavy logging throughout the state is contributing to erosion and stream degradation.
Mother Earth has spent thousands of years establishing a balance of ecosystems around the globe, dependent on local conditions and supporting the diversity of life that has allowed human life to develop and flourish. Since humans have begun burning fossil fuels, we have interfered with that balance by raising the Earth’s average temperature by 1.3 F degrees, which seems like a small number until you consider the consequences of the severe weather events that are occurring with increasing frequency. I think we have to ask if nature is attempting to correct the imbalances that we have caused in her carefully balanced world. In my nest column I will look at the many solutions being tried around the world to manage and maintain fresh water supplies for our increasing population.
By Martha Young