Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): irrigation

How the next Colorado governor can make good on a key water goal

Colorado voters will soon choose a new governor. Based on the candidates’ campaign statements and policy proposals, both Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis are committed to implementing Colorado’s Water Plan.

They’re both also receptive to a key element of the plan called Alternative Transfer Mechanisms (ATMs). Here’s why that’s a good thing for Colorado. Read More »

Posted in Water / Also tagged , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

The snake at the crux of California's wildlife challenge, and the policy that can solve it

Giant garter snake

Giant garter snake (license)

Enter the giant garter snake. The giant garter snake is an aquatic species native to California and a federally-listed “threatened” species that largely persists today – along with many other critters – in the vast acreage of Central Valley rice fields and water distribution canals.

In the past, seasonal floods would transform California’s Central Valley into a great inland sea of floodplain habitats teeming with fish and wildlife, including the giant garter snake.

Over time, development of the flood and irrigation systems that enabled the Central Valley’s $17 billion agricultural economy has led to the destruction of 95 percent of the region’s historic wetlands, putting countless California wildlife at risk of extinction.

For example, ongoing flood system operations and maintenance activities—required to protect farms and communities in the floodplain—continue to disrupt giant garter snake habitat. What’s more, when drought or fallowing reduces water deliveries to rice growers, the snake’s remaining habitat can dry up.

We need a better way to protect and restore habitat for wildlife like the giant garter snake, before it's too late.

Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange, Water / Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read 5 Responses

A reality check on the drones boom

A drone flies over a farm field. Photo credit: Flickr user ackab1

A drone flies over a farm field with an on-board camera. Photo credit: Flickr user ackab1

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released much anticipated rules on commercial small drone use. In a nutshell:

  • The rules loosen restrictions on commercial drone use, and later this summer the FAA will start legally allowing permits for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.
  • The rules are a boon to producers and ranchers interested in precision farming practices, thanks to drones’ advanced imaging technologies.

Industry groups estimate that precision agriculture has the potential to account for almost 80 percent of civilian drone use by 2020. Already, 16 percent of agricultural retailers are selling drones – a figure set to skyrocket in the coming years.

So this is big news for the ag industry – but will it help the environment, too?

Not necessarily. Drones provide lots of data, and nothing more. They don’t actually change anything on the ground or benefit the environment directly. It’s up to growers and their advisors to use the information collected by drones to make informed decisions that can benefit profitability and the planet. Here’s why drones are just one (important) piece of the puzzle. Read More »

Posted in Sustainable Agriculture / Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read 1 Response

Controlled drainage is the new black

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

Dr. Mohamed Youssef demonstrates the benefits of controlled drainage.

NC State University’s agriculture water management expert Mohamed Youssef, Ph.D, believes the time is ripe for controlled drainage to make a comeback.

Controlled drainage is one of the most effective ways to minimize nitrogen loss from croplands. It’s a management practice involving the use of a control structure installed at the outlet of a drainage ditch or subsurface drain to regulate drainage water outflow according to plant needs and field operations.

“A controlled drainage system can remove between 40 and 60 percent of the nitrogen present in runoff, if used at a large scale. These systems hold huge potential to reduce pollution from very large flows of water runoff,” Youssef explained during my recent visit to NC State’s demonstration farms in eastern North Carolina.

Despite the promise, adoption rates for this practice remain very low, in part because of functionality problems with the first controlled drainage structures. But thanks to new advances in the technology that I recently viewed in the field, adoption rates are rising.

Like any filter practice, controlled drainage is just one tool that can help solve regional water quality problems. It’s not a silver bullet, especially with some geographic limitations since they can be used only on low-sloping fields. While there is no perfect solution to stop farm runoff, after seeing drainage systems first-hand, I too believe we’re nearing a tipping point for widespread adoption of controlled drainage in agriculture – and big environmental benefits. Here’s the story. Read More »

Posted in Fertilizer, Sustainable Agriculture / Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Read 1 Response

Colorado farmers have a lot to say about the state’s first-ever water plan

colorado landscapeThis post was co-written by Mark Harris, general manager for the Grand Valley Water Users' Association.

In a recent op-ed, the Colorado Forum – a nonpartisan organization of CEOs and civic leaders – delivered a powerful message to Governor Hickenlooper, who is drafting a first-ever Colorado Water Plan to confront the state’s growing water demands.

The forum’s message: we must all work together to secure a water future that keeps Colorado a world class place to live, visit, work and play.

The forum made a handful of recommendations in the article, but one stood out to us as particularly relevant as we attempt to balance many competing interests in a single water plan: agriculture must be given the freedom and opportunity to thrive in Colorado’s water future. Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Food, Sustainable Agriculture, Water / Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

My hope for the global water crisis: Farmers

farmer Agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of all water consumed in the U.S.

Some people might read that figure and think, “farmers are using all of our water!” But I see it differently. I see potential.

That’s because farmers and ranchers are the original environmentalists, water conservationists and land stewards. They have been, and continue to be, among the first to develop innovative water efficiency solutions, and they are already implementing a variety of practices to optimize their water use and adapt to drought and climate change.

On World Water Day, it’s important to remember that farmers are our best hope for solving the global water crisis. Read More »

Posted in Climate, Ecosystems, Food, Water / Also tagged , , , , , , , , , | Read 2 Responses

A sixth-generation farmer with a fresh and optimistic perspective on conservation

O'Toole Family

Pat O'Toole (second from left) and his family at Ladder Ranch.

Pat O’Toole is a rancher and farmer at Ladder Livestock, a sixth-generation family operation on the Little Snake River along the Wyoming-Colorado border. A leader in collaborative conservation, Pat is engaged in a number of innovative land and water conservation efforts in his capacity as president of the Family Farm Alliance and a member of the AGree advisory board.

This past September, Pat co-authored an AGree paper with Dan Keppen, Executive Director of Family Farm Alliance. The paper – Securing the Future of Western Agriculture: A Perspective of Western Producers – addresses some broad challenges facing the global food and agriculture system. Namely, the need to meet future demands for food while simultaneously enhancing water, soil and other natural resources.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Pat’s ranch to get a sense of these challenges that he and other Western producers face, and to learn more about what Pat is doing to overcome these challenges on his ranch. I asked him to give us a recap of our discussion and to tell us more about his vision for the future.
Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Sustainable Agriculture, Water / Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

Why an Arkansas rice farmer is betting on California's carbon market (and you should too)

Mark Isbell on his farm. Photo credit: Farm Flavor.

Mark Isbell is a rice farmer in Arkansas. He is participating in a pilot project to generate carbon credits by modifying growing practices to reduce the generation of methane and save water.

These practices are being considered by the California Air Resources Board at their meeting on December 18. I asked Mark to tell me why he got involved in this pilot and what it means to growers in his region.

What things did you consider as a part of participating in the agricultural carbon market?

Zero Grade (fields precisely leveled to have no slope) and Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) are the primary practices we have implemented. These are the best candidates for creating carbon offsets while also increasing efficiencies in other areas. Careful nitrogen management is another practice. Extra nitrogen not only leads to unnecessary nitrous oxide emissions, but also provides no benefit to the crop. It can actually be detrimental. The key is finding just the right amount of nitrogen. We are open to trying other practices as we move forward, and have some new ideas in development that we believe may add another layer to this. Read More »

Posted in Carbon Market, Ecosystems, Water / Also tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments are closed

We can have food security and a healthy environment

child eating cornThe way we produce food is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. If current projections hold, we’ll have 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050 – 2 billion more than we have today.

Throughout history, when we’ve needed to expand food production, we’ve gone to nature’s vast storehouse and made withdrawals. In doing so, we’ve filled wetlands, dried up rivers, degraded habitat, and polluted our air and water.

We’ve already drawn down nature’s account to dangerously low levels, and we still need to produce more.

If we’re going to meet growing needs for food and water, we’re going to have to do it in ways that not only stop harming the environment, but actually improve the ecosystems that serve us. Business as usual just isn’t going to cut it.

Farmers lead the way

During the past decade, we’ve been in quiet conversations with farmers and ranchers about how to facilitate this transformation. As we’ve walked their land, we’ve seen some encouraging things. Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Sustainable Agriculture, Water / Also tagged , , , , , , , | Read 1 Response

The Colorado River Basin can’t afford to leave farmers out to dry

farmer irrigatingOn Colorado River Day, it’s worth considering how we can write the next chapter in the water story of the American West.

With the recent news that Lake Mead is at its lowest level in history, it’s impossible to ignore the trajectory of America’s hardest-working river. In the Colorado River Basin, we are already using more water annually than is being supplied by snowpack and other precipitation. The Bureau of Reclamation and others predict that this gap in water supply and demand will increase to nearly 4 million acre-feet by 2060, with significant shortages possible as early as 2017.

It has become clear that, over time, our water uses are going to have to change. In thinking about where – in what sectors – this change should take place, we must also consider the environmental, cultural and economic services that each sector provides.

Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Water / Also tagged , , , , , , | Comments are closed