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Using water wisely

Friday, April 05, 2013 - Updated: 4:10 PM

Gentle rain sifts down along the valley. Fog rolls in from the west, hiding the heifer pasture under a clammy blanket. Creeks dance. The river grumbles eastward, grinding rocks down its channels, mud flats glistening in its wake. Fields are soft and muddy, unwelcoming to boots and tires. It's dry in some places (such as indoors), but outside it is just plain wet.

In fact, here in the Great Northeast, we have water, water everywhere, with all we need to drink.

However, water is one of the foremost issues facing farmers, even here in cool and soggy New York. In 2011 our governor signed a law that requires users of large volumes of water, including farmers, to report that usage. As of now the cutoff point is 100,000 gallons per day.

"Agricultural water users withdrawing an average of 100,000 gallons or more of water per day in any month during the previous year (2012) from any combination of groundwater and surface freshwater sources are required to register their water withdrawals with NYSDEC; this year the deadline is March 31, 2013." (You can find details on this matter on the Cornell University web site if you need them.)

Smaller farms need not report as yet, but who knows how long that will continue.

In other places, water availability is already a critical matter. One family I have come to know during the past couple of years farms on Colorado's Uncompahgre Plateau. Thanks to inadequate snow pack in the mountains and insufficient rainfall in general, the amount of water they will be allowed to use to irrigate their crops this year has been cut to 50 percent of their normal allotment.

This means that they will be forced to plant less ground to hay, fewer acres to sweet corn, and maybe no fields at all to pinto beans. It all depends on the water.

Ditch irrigation, by the way, requires a staggering amount of work in order to get water to the plants that need it. First, canals that carry the water to the farms and ranches must be cleared of brush and debris. This is a huge task. According to my friend at Life on a Colorado Farm, there are 128 miles of canals, 438 miles of laterals, and 216 miles of drains in the system that feeds water through their area.

Then the water has to be diverted into the fields where it is needed.

In some places siphon tubes are hand-set in the concrete portions of the ditches and the water they pull out of the ditch is directed around the field with such tools as shovels and hoes. Labor intensive doesn't begin to describe the chore. In other places PVC tubes move water to the proper location.

It might surprise you that, besides working hard to care for their crops, farmers and ranchers all over the U.S. must compete for irrigation water with suburban and urban folks who want to water their lawns.

Say what? Color me crazy, but seems as if food production would take precedence over growing swathes of sterile, uninterrupted, green examples of one of the most environmentally unfriendly monocultures imaginable.

In many countries, space around homes is at a premium and lawns like we plant here are virtually unknown. Indeed, the concept of surrounding one's domicile with a carpet of grass is believed to have originated with 17th and 18th century aristocrats. According to The Week, Louis XIV of France was among the first to embrace "tapis vert, or green carpet." Lawns were status symbols, synonymous with pleasure and play. Not much has changed about that today, but now lawn care in the U.S. is a $40 billion-a-year industry.

It is an industry and/or pastime that uses plenty of water.

As of 2011, according to Scienceline, home owners, golf courses, and parks probably grew more acres of irrigated grass than the top eight irrigated food and forage crops combined, to the tune of 40.5 million acres.

NASA Earth Observatory reported on research done by Christina Milesi on the topic.

"Even conservatively," Milesi says, "I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn." This means lawns -- including residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, etc. -- could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, covering about 128,000 square kilometers in all."

Today, with ethanol driving corn prices higher, which drives acreage planted to corn higher as well, projected corn plantings may equal as many as 97 million acres. However, the vast majority of this land is not irrigated.

As always the media furor over perceived negative aspects of corn and other monoculture crops just won't quit. However, the back yards and golf courses of the folks doing the finger-pointing are also responsible for a significant percentage of runoff pollution. The same article in The Week pointed out that millions of dollars worth of herbicides and pesticides wash off lawns every time it rains. Mowing and trimming add significantly to air pollution. The author claimed that a "gas-powered mower emits as much pollution per hour as 11 cars."

Some areas are addressing this situation by making the watering of lawns illegal or strictly regulating when it can take place. People are encouraged to instead embrace xeriscaping, the practice of replacing lawn grass with native plants, which thrive with much less water.

In 2008, Henderson, Nev., offered loans to its citizens to help pay for the removal of their lawns, and to purchase plants to replace them. Many xeriscaping plants are common garden favorites, such as sedums, aloes, assorted drought-friendly grasses, and in more arid areas, various cacti. Even a number of flowering plants such as daisies, gaillardias, phlox and Echinacea.

Here in the Northeast we could also do our part toward wiser water usage. Less thirsty flowers or even vegetables, perhaps grown in attractive raised beds, could replace some barren lawn areas with something offering a more productive use for water. So far it isn't particularly scarce here, but we've seen drought before.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs



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