[Don’t] Blame it on the Rain

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Everyone is talking about how it hasn’t rained this year in California. And it hasn’t. In fact, over the past decade, California has seen three super-dry years (2003, 2007, 2013) and some say that this year could be the worst drought in 500 years.

In California, water shortages cost nearly $1BN annually in crop losses (source: EPA). This is because California is an agricultural powerhouse with one-third of the Central Valley’s jobs related to farming. The state produces more than half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. And let’s not forget that droughts have led to major fires, inflicting extreme damage. I’m going to focus on CA in this post, but it’s worth mentioning that, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, large swaths of America are also facing drought.

ImageStill, far too much emphasis is being placed on rain and far too little on water consumption. Clearly there is a supply (rain) issue in California, but what we should really be focused on is how to better manage demand.

While California is an agricultural hub, the state is naturally arid. 75% of the region’s freshwater (surface water and groundwater) is used to grow 29+ million acres of crops. Historically, surface water (from lakes, streams, rivers) was used, but as population and demand spiked, groundwater began to be tapped (underground aquifers). The problem is that California uses groundwater faster than it can replenish it. As a result, individual wells located near the saltwater/freshwater boundary can become saline, further reducing supply and creating a vicious cycle that leads to more and more salinization of fresh water.

There is a great deal of waste in agriculture, generated from outdated techniques and infrastructure and costing millions of acre feet of water annually. The majority of farms still employ irrigation methods like spray watering, which cause water to run-off. New methods like drip irrigation and terraced ground can minimize waste. Drip irrigation allows the water to seep directly into the plant roots, while a terraced system pushes any water run-off down to other crops below.

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A great way to reduce our water footprint is to plant crops that thrive in arid areas like California. I love almonds, but growing them in the San Joanquin Valley requires a huge amount of irrigated water. The region only gets ~6-10 inches of rain and almonds require 45+ inches of supplemental irrigation pulled from the ground. The same crop in Butte County requires only 19 inches of irrigation because it rains more (source: http://buttegroundwater.org/)

Being more selective of where we grow water-thirsty crops can have a meaningful impact. Of course, private farms and growers will continue to plant such crops if the economics make sense, even if it means more water usage. That’s why the best way forward is to provide alternative fruit trees or oilseed crops, like pongamia pinnata, that requires less water and are also highly profitable. At TerViva, we see the potential to broadly deploy pongamia, which is adaptable over a wide variety of soils, including saline soils, and tolerates periods of both drought and flooding.  

ImageAnother potential area of opportunity is brackish (saline) water. Many river systems suffer from salt buildup caused by surface runoff, irrigation and evaporation. As the map to the left shows, much of the United States contains extensive brackish ground water resources. In addition, saline water is a common by-product in oil and gas production. Large scale desalination holds promise but needs further investment to work out issues like high cost and waste disposal. Research into crops that can thrive in saline conditions can further expand the arable land base. While we at TerViva don’t genetically modify our crops, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about whether genetic engineering should be used to design drought-resistant crops.

Finally, climate change (the artist formerly known as global warming) is thought to affect the hydrologic cycle. Several global warming studies predict that rising temperatures will reduce the river’s flow by 35% over next few decades. Climate change is also reducing mountain snow pack, a critical source of natural water. We ignore these changes at our own peril.

ImageWater is the lifeblood of food security; yet water shortages are everywhere, from Hawaii to Iran to Qatar to Australia. With world population set to increase 40-50% over the next 50 years, the demand for water will only rise. Short of reversing some of the detrimental effects of climate change, we can’t control rain. So let’s focus on the thing that we can control: how we use the water that we do have.  

Sudhir is the CFO of TerViva, Inc.

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