Water — or specifically a lack of it — is increasingly an area of focus not only in agriculture but in all industries, as municipalities and the corporate world battle for control of supplies. The rest of the world could take a lesson from Texas, where growers have been dealing with drought and parched conditions since before there was a Texas.
Ken Kopocis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s senior advisor on water, recently said, “Can you really give water a price? In a stream it’s free, and when you don’t have it… it’s priceless.”
Tell it to Texas.
“How do you attack the question of water? Eighty percent of the water that is used by people is used in agriculture,” Dr. Nessler said. “We have this conflict in Texas and other parts of the country and world between urban people who don’t realize where their food comes from saying, ‘You guys are using too much water for your crops, send it to us so we can have abundant cheap water in the city.’ So we have to find solutions and we’re doing that through all sorts of approaches.”
Currently, almost all of Texas is classified as experiencing some level of drought, with conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional.”
In the Rio Grande Valley, in the deep south of Texas, just across the border from Mexico and home to much of the state’s fruit and vegetable production, the annual water deficit already exceeds 1 million acre-feet/year. In the event of a record drought, projections of the region would have only half the water it needs. Already, growers are dealing with brackish groundwater that makes coaxing quality crops out of the ground a challenge.
To complicate matters, the Valley is one of the fastest growing regions in America — population is expected to double in the next 50 years.
The Valley’s primary source of water — the Rio Grande River — is already overtaxed and water volumes are projected to decline more than 25 percent in the next 50 years, primarily due to buildup of sedimentation in reservoirs.
Texans are becoming increasingly innovative in approaches to water management.
In Houston, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group installed a prototype wastewater pretreatment system at its bottling plant in March. The “Bioviper” system, the brainchild of a California company Baswood, founded by Hollywood stars Woody Harrelson and Edward Norton, uses 40 percent less energy than traditional systems and saves thousands of gallons of water. The Bioviper’s reduced size makes it feasible for other large companies to consider similar systems, Baswood representatives said.
Crescent Fruit & Vegetable in Edinburg, TX, has a different plan in place to prepare for extreme drought. If “push came to shove” the company’s emergency plan would be to shift the bulk of its growing to its Mexican operations.
“We think that we have our water [supply] locked up for 2014, but who wants to be just one year away from having to think about what you’re going to do otherwise?” asked Crescent’s David DeBerry. “In Mexico, if push came to shove, we could produce onions in that district all the way from the start of the season to when the Texas Winter Garden [region] starts and maybe even longer. We could probably make that change on a week’s notice if it turned out that 2015 didn’t look good.”
Increasingly, Texans are looking to the Gulf of Mexico as a potential water source. A $2 million downsized pilot desalination plant on the Texas coast in Brownsville now provides nine percent of that area’s water supply and proved the process is feasible. Up next: Securing $115 million in grants and loans from the state to bring a full-scale plant online.
Science will no doubt play a large role in solving Texas’ water woes, “including adapting irrigation practices, drip irrigation and timing,” Dr. Nessler said. “We’re looking at genetics very strongly to look at the factors that influence water use efficiency in crops and certainly in fruits and vegetables, which are high-value crops; we have to make sure the water that they’re using is used efficiently and that involves root architecture, response to temperature, time, aspirational aspects — we’re trying to take a holistic approach to the question of water. The price of gasoline has gotten ridiculously high but if you figure out per gallon how much people are paying for bottled water, they’re probably paying more than they are for their gasoline. We know that this natural resource is something we have to protect and make sure that agriculture doesn’t get blamed as the water supply may diminish or change. It used to be people would think about drought resistance — we use the term ‘water use efficiency’ — but you don’t have to be in a drought to want to have crops that use less water.”