By Steven Emmen, NFU Intern

Farmers and ranchers who are feeding a growing population often think about more. The more crops planted and the more they yield, the more mouths are fed, right? However, when speaking in terms of efficiency, whether it’s inputs, land, or water, farmers and ranchers need to think about less. In the case of the latter, the less water crops or cattle require, the better.

Sometimes it can be hard to see the threats facing water in the West. Agricultural producers understand that water is essential to the success of their operations, but may not realize that several contingencies are jeopardizing the resource. In 2014, the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a report produced by over a dozen federal agencies, addresses how climate change will influence a  number of environmental issues, including water availability. The assessment states, “Surface and groundwater supplies in some regions are already stressed by increasing demand as well as declining runoff and groundwater recharge. In some regions, particularly the southern U.S. and the Caribbean and the Pacific islands, climate change is increasing the likelihood of water shortages and competition for water. Water quality is diminishing in many areas, particularly due to increasing sediment and contaminant concentrations after heavy downpours.”

In other words, both the quality and quantity of water are at risk because of climate change and population growth. Patterns in snowfall and rain are causing drastic increases in runoff as well as flooding and droughts. The demand for water is not going away either, but the supply of water might. Water shortages will cause an increase in demand for groundwater withdrawals, ultimately reducing the groundwater availability to farmers and ranchers.

These changes in water availability will change how farmers and ranchers in the West view water. The NCA states that water resource managers will encounter new risks, vulnerabilities, and opportunities that might not be manageable with existing practices. This will increase flood risk and damages to health, property, infrastructure, economies, and ecology. It is important to remember that in the West, over 80 percent of water withdrawals are used for agriculture. This puts ranchers and farmers at the center of the issue, making them largely responsible for the conservation of water in the region.

Viewing water in terms of climate change and within a context larger than your own operation can be intimidating. Often it can feel out of your hands, but farmers and ranchers can take many steps towards conserving water. Does your region face issues with water quality or quantity? Is your community actively countering the effects of climate change and population growth? Stay tuned – on Thursday a professional will share suggestions and conservation methods.

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