America's big drought: Time to rethink water conservation

Much of the Lower 48 is in a bad drought, the worst since 1956. Yet each drought also brings new ideas for adapting to nature's vagaries. What ideas are worth considering now?

Virginie MONTET/AFP Photo/File
Farmer Joel Salatin on his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, uses unconventional methods to maximize the use of rainwater for his crops and livestock. His rotates his cattle often in pastures to help retain soil quality and water.

Most of the continental United States is experiencing the worst drought since 1956. In some parts of the Midwest, hot weather and little rain have created conditions like those just before the 1930s Dust Bowl.

Farmers are asking for more government help. Livestock are being sold off. Wells are overtaxed. And consumers are being warned to expect rising food prices in 2013.

As during previous big droughts, people most dependent on water for their livelihoods feel as if they are at the mercy of nature. “If I had a rain prayer or rain dance I could do, I would do it,” said Tom Vilsack, the US agriculture secretary.

Yet at times like this, it is worth remembering how each drought also has led to better water management and new methods of agriculture – all the better to sustain the country through the next one.

In Kansas, one of the areas hit worst by the long spell of heat and dryness, Gov. Sam Brownback noted this week that farmers are better off this summer because of changes made after previous droughts. Water rights, for example, have been adjusted from a use-it-or-lose-it policy to encourage water saving.

Water conservation has indeed come a long way since the 1930s. Farmers, for example, now plant trees for shelter from wind. Aquifers, irrigation canals, wetlands, and sprinkler systems are better managed. More farmers use no-till sowing. New seed varieties have better drought resistance.

And soil erosion has been greatly reduced since the 1990s after the government began to pay farmers to take some 35 million acres of highly erodible land out of crop production.

Yet more can be done, not just in adopting new techniques but in taking on wholly new views of farming.

In Australia, which recently endured a decade-long drought, landscape restorer Peter Andrews argues that Australia, which is the world’s driest country, must return its countryside to the natural water patterns of the 19th century. Thousands of farmers have followed his advice and built swampy meadows and chains of ponds to keep rain stored for dry spells. They also have grown reeds in streams to slow down rain runoff and minimize evaporation.

The idea is to work with nature in the wet times to cope with the times of little rain.

Similar ideas are being promoted in the US by farming pioneer Joel Salatin, owner of a 400-acre farm in Virginia called Polyface. He practices what he calls “forgiveness farming,” or adapting to the eventual drought or flood.

“Part of the farmer’s ministry is creating forgiveness for all of these anomalies to minimize their damage and maximize resiliency,” he states. He likens it to a marriage in which each partner builds up ways to handle the vagaries of the other.

He also sees ponds as essential – better than government crop insurance. He sets up his crops and farm animals to maximize the use of the available rainwater. He doesn’t even use the small river on his property because he says it belongs to everyone. His innovative ways of conserving grassland not only retain water but build up the quality of the soil.

Droughts are not to be feared, he says, but serve as a reminder that farmers must be stewards of both land and water and should not wrestle them into submission. They must seek resiliency and flexibility, or what he calls “spiritual ascendency.”

New ideas in farming often become popular after each drought. It’s part of adapting to nature rather than being victimized by it.

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