Farm Progress

Commentary: Water management and additional grain storage will play an integral role in the future of agriculture.

Robert Hearne

February 16, 2017

3 Min Read
CLIMATE-DRIVEN: Grain storage will help the nation cope with more frequent droughts.

At North Dakota State University, we respect the growing scientific consensus that human-caused, global climate change will imply gradual increases in mean temperatures and more frequent extreme climate events. Because we are familiar with cold winters in Fargo, higher temperatures may sound appealing. But increased extreme climate events should cause concern. These events include drought and floods.

Frankly, I teach my classes that developed countries should have the capacity to withstand certain climate change impacts. New drought-resistant crop varieties can be developed for Great Plains farmers, and infrastructure can be developed to help cope with flooding. But with increased drought and flooding, new water-storage strategies will need to be developed.

Water storage
The most important water reservoir in the Great Plains is the High Plains Aquifer, which includes the Ogallala Aquifer and additional smaller formations, and covers parts of eight states from Texas to South Dakota.

The most important surface-water storage system is the series of Missouri River mainstem dams developed under the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. These are managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under periodically revised rules that dedicate significant reservoir space to interannual water storage.

Aquifer storage has many geophysical advantages. Aquifers are not subject to evaporation. However, the institutional agencies and rules that manage the aquifer are problematic. The aquifer is a common-pool resource, managed decentrally by numerous state and local agencies. This resource is threatened by the “tragedy of the commons,” which occurs when individual water users receive the benefit of pumping water from the aquifer but may not internalize the impact of their use on the total depletion of the resource.

Irrigators need permits from state agencies to pump water from the aquifer. Still over-pumping and groundwater depletion have occurred.

Many state agencies and local water management districts are making efforts to conserve water in the aquifer. The most effective of these efforts should be disseminated across the region. New rules and institutional capacity need to be developed to better utilize the resource to mitigate future droughts, and interstate cooperation in aquifer management should be fostered.

It is possible to recharge an aquifer through injection wells and porous sand and rock. But new systems need to be developed to transfer surface water to groundwater storage during times of flooding. Certainly, any effort to transfer Missouri River water to aquifer storage will face legal challenges. However, the need to better manage water under the threat of extreme climate events will require efforts to overcome legal, institutional and technological problems, as well as considerable infrastructure development.

Grain storage
The policy prescription of grain storage dates back at least to the biblical story of Joseph, who prophesized seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought. Grain storage in ancient Egypt was an obvious recommendation.

International trade and grain storage are considered cost-effective strategies to provide food security, especially in light of the failure of many expensive surface irrigation projects across the globe. But grain storage capacity in the Great Plains has been challenged in recent years.

Certainly our capacity to store grain to mitigate the impacts of seven years of drought preceded by seven years of plenty is questionable. New elevators and silos need to be constructed. Given the political climate, the federal government is not expected to return to large-scale grain purchases. Therefore, new financing strategies need to be considered under private-sector leadership.

Denying human-caused climate change may be convenient, and we may not accept that greenhouse gas reduction is the only strategy to mitigate climate change impacts.

New strategies need to be developed to alleviate extreme climate events before they become frequent. These strategies will include new technologies and infrastructure, but they also will include new cooperation in water resource management and new ways to finance crop storage. These strategies should include lessons learned and understood since the days of the pharaohs.

Heane is a North Dakota State University associate professor in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics.

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