The high-tech desert

Click to enlargeDamon Winter/NY Times

When Bart Fisher returned home from college in 1972, his family’s alfalfa fields outside Blythe in California’s southeastern desert produced 7 tons of alfalfa per acre. Today, the Fishers get 10 tons per acre from the same land. They do it with the same amount of water as a much younger Fisher and his family used four decades ago.

Growing water-use efficiency on farms like Fisher’s is one of the salient features of the evolution of agriculture in the developed world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Palo Verde and the desert agricultural valleys of southwestern North America. These regions challenge two common narratives about water. The first is that we are blind to a looming disaster…The second narrative, common among the technocrats who manage our water systems and the engineering enthusiasts who design them, is that inexorable growth of our population and economy inevitably means that we need more water – bigger dams, new desalination plants, new canals across the continent from wet to dry places, even icebergs towed from the arctic.

Both narratives hang on a central premise – that more people and more economic activity inevitably means we’ll need more water. Recent experience in the United States southwest suggests both narratives need to be revisited.

In California, farm water use has declined by 40 percent since the 1980s, even as irrigated acreage has risen. Farmers like Fisher are growing more food with less water, with some of the saved water being shifted to cities, and modest steps are being made toward returning some of that water to the environment.

In cities too, water use is going down. Every one of the region’s major urban areas that once depended on unsustainable groundwater mining has turned the corner. Conservation and shifts to relatively more sustainable sources of supplies have led to aquifers beneath Los Angeles, the sunbelt of Central Arizona, and Las Vegas that have stabilized or in some cases are rising.

RTFA for lots more detail and discussion. Seriously. This is a long and very informative article. Worth the read. Worth reflecting upon.

A solution to starving rice plants that starts at the root

Scientists have pinpointed a gene that enables rice plants to produce around 20% more grain by increasing uptake of phosphorus, an important, but limited, plant nutrient.

The discovery unlocks the potential to improve the food security of rice farmers with the lowest value phosphorus-deficient land allowing them to grow more rice to add to global production, and earn more.

The gene — called PSTOL1 which stands for Phosphorus Starvation Tolerance — helps rice grow a larger, better root system and thereby access more phosphorus. Farmers can apply phosphorus fertilizers to increase productivity but on problem soils phosphorus is often locked in the soil and unavailable to plants.

Also, phosphorus fertilizer is often unaffordable to poor farmers. Adding to the problem is that phosphorus is a non-renewable natural resource and rock phosphate reserves — the source of most phosphorus fertilizers — are running out…

…Dr. Sigrid Heuer, senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute, said…”We’ve known for a long time that the traditional rice variety Kasalath from India has a set of genes that helps rice grow well in soils low in phosphorus”…

“We have now hit the jackpot and found PSTOL1, the major gene responsible for improved phosphorus uptake and understand how it works,” Heuer saiFd…

The discovery of the PSTOL1 gene means that rice breeders will be able to breed new rice varieties faster and more easily, and with 100% certainty their new rice will have the gene.

One of the special benefits of the new strains is their suitability for poorer upland farmers growing rice without irrigation.

The gene is being offered through modern hybridization techniques though I don’t doubt there will be GM versions as well. Neither of which may satisfy Luddites; but, then agronomists are not trying to improve crops just to stroke the farming-as-religion crowd.

Poor farmers and nations in need are the legitimate target market.

Settlers steal Palestinian water – after stealing Palestinian land

Israeli sentry at one of the springs
Daylife/Reuters Pictures used by permission

Jewish settlers have seized dozens of natural springs in the occupied West Bank, barring Palestinians or limiting their access to scarce water sources…

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it had surveyed 530 springs in the West Bank and found that 30, mostly in areas where Israel retains military control, were taken over by the settlers. It added that Palestinians currently had limited access to 26 other springs where settlers had moved in and threatened to take control. The report said settlers had not encroached on 474 remaining springs surveyed.

“Springs have remained the single largest water source for irrigation and a significant source for watering livestock,” the report said, adding that some also provided water for domestic consumption in areas not connected to pipelines. “The loss of access to springs and adjacent land reduced the income of affected farmers, who either stop cultivating the land or face a reduction in the productivity of their crops,” the report said…

“Settlers have developed 40 springs as tourist sites, deployed picnic tables and benches and given them Hebrew names … It is generating employment and revenue for the settlements and it is a way of promoting or advertising settlements as a fun place,” OCHA researcher Yehezkel Lein said.

A fun place if you are thief.

In 2009 a spring named Ein el Qaws, located near the village of Nabi Saleh, was taken over by settlers from Halamish, forcing villagers to obtain their irrigation water from other sources, the report and residents said.

“The spring was used to irrigate hundreds of olive and fruit trees in the village and the children used to swim in it, now if we try to go to the spring, the settlers and soldiers come and kick us out,” said villager Nariman Tamimi.

A spokesman for Israel’s military-run Civil Administration in the West Bank said…blah, blah, blah, blah.

Israel…says the status of settlements should be decided in peace negotiations.

Except that Israel – with the support of Congress and the White House – hasn’t negotiated anything in good faith for decades. No one seriously expects them to start any time soon.

Arizona desalting plant starts pilot run next spring – finally

Cienega de Santa Clara

A decision has been made to conduct a pilot run of the Yuma Desalting Plant in May…

The plant, west of Yuma, was essentially completed in 1992. Initial operational testing was conducted at about one-third capacity until early 1993, when it was stopped after flooding on the Gila River damaged a portion of the irrigation drainage canal…

“Drought, population growth and the continuing need for water in the Southwest have increased the demand on the Colorado River,” Lorri Gray-Lee said. “This collaborative undertaking is one more example of the ongoing state-federal partnership effort to address the drought’s impacts, conserve and stretch the river’s water supply and identify and secure additional supplies…”

About 21,700 acre-feet of desalted water will be produced during the pilot run. This water will be combined with 7,300 acre-feet of untreated irrigation drainage water and the total amount – 29,000 acre-feet – will be discharged into the Colorado River and included in deliveries to Mexico as required by treaty…

Construction of the desalting plant was authorized by the Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Act of 1974. Its purpose was to desalt irrigation drainage water flows from the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District so a portion of that water could be included in treaty-required deliveries of Colorado River water to Mexico. Since 1977, this drainage water has been conveyed from the district to the Cienega, bypassing the desalting plant.

At this time, Reclamation is not proposing to operate the plant beyond the pilot run, Gray-Lee said. “Any decision about the plant’s future will be made after the pilot run is completed or terminated…

Perish the thought you should hurry the process. Follow usual political standards and wait until water has run out in the region for a decade or two – so you won’t affront know-nothing skeptics or this week’s hate-the-furriner crowd.

Save your old snow – use it for air conditioning

A city official in Ottawa, Canada, is proposing using mountains of winter snow to provide air conditioning for city buildings in the summer.

In a motion filed with the city’s planning and environment committee, Councilor Diane Deans said an undisclosed city in Sweden already uses the snow technology to air condition a hospital complex.

Her motion says Ottawa is one of the coldest capital cities on the planet and would stand to save significant amounts of money on energy for summer cooling by using snow.

Why can’t we turn snow from a liability into an asset,” she told the Sun.

The concept involves establishing deposit sites where city snow removal crews would dump tons of snow into mountains that would take months to thaw on their own.

My wife and I were discussing this on the way home from our weekly grocery expedition, this morning. She made an excellent additional point:

After the city contains the snow to utilize cold air taken from the mass of frozen goodness, it should be pretty easy to channel the melt water, let it come up to ambient temperature and use it for irrigating parks and recreation land.

Two for the price of one.

Darling River in Australia gets partial respite from slow death

An irrigation farm larger than Singapore and sucking up billions of liters of water each year has been bought by Australia’s government to help save one of the country’s most vital rivers from a slow death and climate change.

Toorale Station, a cotton farm covering 910 sq km (351 sq miles) in the west of New South Wales state, was sold to the national and state governments for almost US$19 million, one day before it was set to go to auction.

The purchase will allow 20 gigaliters — equivalent to 20,000 Olympic swimming pools — to be returned each year to the ailing Darling River, which is one of two streams flowing through the Murray-Darling basin, home to almost half the nation’s farms…

Large irrigation farms, some capable of using more water than contained in Sydney Harbor, are accused of exacerbating a long-running drought that has already wiped more than A$20 billion ($16 billion) from the A$1 trillion economy since 2002.

The property, previously owned by the Clyde Agriculture conglomerate, is primarily used for cotton growing, although Clyde also grows wheat, barley, chickpeas, canola, cottonseed, beef, lamb and mutton in the Bourke area.

Surely sounds like Lubbock and West Texas to me. The Ogalala aquifer is being sucked drier and deeper, year by year, to satisfy the demands of taxpayer-subsidized cotton growers.

Finally – FDA finds the Salmonella source – at a Mexican farm

A salmonella outbreak in the United States and Canada has been linked to irrigation water and serrano peppers at a Mexican farm, says the FDA. Dr. David Acheson, the FDA’s food safety chief, said the farm is in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and called the discovery “a key breakthrough.”

The salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 1,200 people since April, had been linked to raw Mexican jalapeños and serranos. Last week, the Mexican government had called an FDA advisory saying so “premature.”

The FDA now advises consumers to avoid raw jalapeño peppers grown in Mexico and any foods containing raw jalapeño peppers grown in Mexico. Likewise, no one should eat raw serrano peppers from Mexico.

It still remains that these bureaucrat flunkeys for the food distribution industry wasted months before they would even say the word “Mexican” publicly. So afraid of harming the revenue stream when people were obviously getting sick after eating in Mexican restaurants.

Half the population where I live is Mexican-American – and we all figured out what the problem was as soon as the FDA twerps admitted what was happening. Couldn’t they have said, “Hey – most of these folks ate at a Mexican restaurant before getting sick. Don’t eat anything uncooked when you go to your favorite Mexican restaurant till we track this down”?