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Water, water: States face shortages

The times, they are troubled in agriculture. As if Depression era prices, lethargic demand, the ongoing GMO controversy, and the “normal” concerns of weather, pests, and input costs weren't enough, many of the country's crop-producing regions still face serious water shortage concerns.

While most of the Mid-South area has received welcome “normal” rains this winter that will put everyone in decent shape going into planting season, the effects of the significant drawdown in major aquifers over the last three deficit-rainfall years will continue to have an impact on water resources.

There is wicked irony in a situation in which an area with a normally high annual rainfall, in comparison to the arid West, finds itself confronting the very real possibility of water shortages for agriculture.

It is, unfortunately, a concern affecting ever wider areas.

At a conference I attended in northwest Idaho last week, much of the hallway coffee break discussion centered on water for the West's vast agricultural machine.

The same week, Idaho Gov. Gary Locke declared a statewide drought emergency, proclaiming it the worst since 1977. Reservoirs, rivers, and snowpacks across the state are about half of normal for this time of year, with less than a month before the dry season sets in.

He added drama to his announcement by holding a press conference in a now bone-dry area of Alder Lake, a hydroelectric generating site. While the entire lake hasn't gone dry, the area where Locke stood would normally have been under 12 feet of water.

The lovely Lake Coeur d'Alene, where our ag conference was held, was 10 feet lower than normal, leaving some boat docking areas high and dry.

The governor's emergency declaration opens a special state drought account that can be used to buy water rights in an effort to help keep rivers and streams from drying up and to assist farmers who irrigate. It also allows the state's Department of Ecology to facilitate transfers of water rights from one farm to another, from one city to another — and the state has a current backlog of 1,800 transfer applications.

Lower-than-normal snowpack in the mountains of the Upper Northwest will have an impact on water availability to the nation's most productive agricultural region, California.

In other Sunbelt states, Texas and much of the Southwest got near-normal rainfall this winter, but that area, like ours, has gone through a multi-year drought.

Florida is now in the midst of the driest year on record, and water management districts are proposing drastic limits on water for agriculture and businesses — a move, some say, that could be the death knell for many operations. It's so bad, “water police” are patrolling neighborhoods in search of violators of water limits, and alligators are reported leaving dried up swamps and coming into towns in search of wet areas.

Georgia, looking at what's shaping up to be its fourth summer of drought in a row, has come up with a plan to pay farmers not to irrigate. The state is using $10 million from its tobacco settlement fund for an auction program that will pay some of the nation's most productive cotton and peanut producers for not irrigating their crops this season. Those who accept the deal can still grow crops, but they'll have to gamble on whether there'll be adequate rainfall to make decent yields — and based on the last three years, Las Vegas odds are probably better.

Under the auction system, farmers submit written bids to not irrigate for a specific per-acre price. Bids will be computer analyzed to determine which will be accepted. Reports are that the state may go as high as $100 per acre, and while growers generally say that isn't enough, others say it would be sure money as opposed to the uncertainty of another searing, rainless, crop withering summer.


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