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The bigger water picture

Sorghum Focus: Whether through crop rotation or innovative market solutions, farmers can turn the tide on the water crisis.

John Duff

June 11, 2024

3 Min Read
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BIG PICTURE: Through crop rotation with sorghum or with innovative new market solutions, farmers can change course on the looming water crisis.BitsAndSplits/Getty Images

My longtime readers know I spend a lot of time writing and thinking about water issues. My last several water articles have contemplated how water can be managed from an agronomic standpoint. Today, I want to talk about the macro picture of water.

The availability of water is an existential threat. Consider the alarming statistics: Lakes Mead and Powell, two of the largest reservoirs in the United States, are each hundreds of feet low. Similarly, the Ogallala Aquifer, a lifeline for agriculture across the Great Plains, is facing severe depletion, with total depletion in certain areas in the coming decades a real possibility. The drought we can’t seem to put behind us, and the relentless pumping it’s requiring, is threatening the very existence of communities dependent on this precious resource.

As bad as our issues over the Ogallala Aquifer are, they pale in comparison to the challenges faced globally. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), countries like Qatar, Israel and Lebanon are experiencing extreme water stress — compared to the moderate stress level WRI finds in the U.S. This fact means that even minor disruptions in water supply can lead to significant crises.

As difficult as this situation seems, these problems are addressable: maybe more so than climate change. Less pumping means less water depletion. Period. Climate has a lot of variables at play, and individual companies acting on their own can't really do anything to solve the problem. Water use, however, is a more localized issue that can be directly managed. To be clear, I’m not saying we don’t worry about climate; we absolutely should talk about it. But we’ll all die going without water for a couple days; it’s an immediate problem. 

How do we address that problem? Some will say government action. Not going to argue for or against that here for several reasons. Most importantly, it isn’t really my place to weigh in, given the localized nature of water rights and the various legal philosophies governing ownership from one location to another.

A few solutions

Rather, I’ll offer a few solutions. Growing water-smart crops like sorghum is a part of the solution. Sorghum is not only drought-tolerant but also requires significantly less water compared to other crops. Growing these crops in rotation with other crops to spread water out or time the application of water differently is another option. Rotations can help manage water use more effectively and maintain soil health as an added bonus. 

Additionally, we’re increasingly working with consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies and other supply chain participants who are either feeling the pinch of reduced water availability or have otherwise made water commitments that might require them to incentivize farmers to save water. These inset (the reverse of an offset like a carbon credit, where the company incentivizes practice changes inside its supply chain) opportunities could drive significant positive changes that could lead to reduced water use and preserve the life of our precious freshwater resources.

To wrap up, the good news is while this problem is existential, it’s not insurmountable. We’ve seen areas make concerted efforts to reduce water usage time and again, and because pumping less is a surefire way to save water, these efforts are often quite successful.

By focusing on sustainable practices and working together with various stakeholders in the supply chain, we can tackle this water crisis head-on and ensure a more secure future for our agricultural communities. The time to act is now, and with informed decisions and collaborative efforts, we can — and will! —make a difference.

Duff is founder of Serō Ag Strategies and serves as a consultant to National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @sorghumduff.

About the Author(s)

John Duff

John Duff is founder of Serō Ag Strategies and serves as a consultant to National Sorghum Producers.

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