We are quickly entering a world where water, a resource we took for granted or assumed was limitless is quickly becoming more precious than ever before.
Using the example of California it is best to first understand exactly what the situation is in California concerning water supply, where water is being used, and the conservation effort that is currently taking place.
98% of California is experiencing drought conditions to some extent and it’s affecting everyone and everything, including fish and wildlife, in a myriad of ways. Recent advanced aerial research by the Carnegie Institute for Science has shown that the drought has measurably affected nearly 1 billion trees across the state which have shown measurable water loss.
Multiple groups are advocating for more responsible personal water use, further restriction of watering of yards and plants, ordinances preventing further planting of water intensive lawns, and many more mitigating efforts and solutions.
Some have even gone as far as advocating for “if it’s yellow let it mellow,if it’s brown flush it down.” The actual math of this solution equals up to about an 8 dollar savings for the entire year and saving around 3000 gallons of water, not worth it in the big picture, and as water works have improved, nearly all of our sewage and waste water can eventually be reclaimed.
For the first time in California the Governor Jerry Brown enacted mandatory and far reaching new legislation in 2015 after the Sierra Nevada snowpack was recorded at a new low of 5% in April, spelling more problems with water, as these snow packs are vital for water security in the state. After a very snowy December the snowpack rose to 136% which is a good sign, but this snowfall would have to continue well into April to have any real effect on the drought situation.
There are promises of rebates for Californians to replace inefficient appliances, such as toilets and dishwashers, with improved ones. Golf courses and new construction projects are having water use slashed back, and it has even affected the landscaping in highway medians which can no longer be watered at all.
With these new governmental policies in place, everyday water consumer habits changing, an increase in awareness and education, and grassroots groups leading these efforts the situation should be expected to be improving.
So without taking credence away from these grassroots and governmental changes concerning water education, conservation, and efficiency and everything they’ve accomplished already; it will barely make a dent in the water crisis in California.
So if it’s not our personal everyday habits that are exacerbating this massive drought and water issues in California then what is the problem and where is it stemming from? In California and around the world the VAST amount of water resources allocated and used go to….Agriculture.
California is the world’s fifth largest of supplier of food which makes for a huge agricultural sector. This massive amount of output needs a huge input of water, 80% of ALL the water used in California to be exact. Yes that’s right, a whopping 80% of water used in California is used in the agricultural industry. This industry is mostly centered around a 450 mile stretch of agriculturally viable land called the Central Valley. And are these farmers and agricultural corporations using the water responsibly? Of course not.
Farmers in California first of all grow many water intensive crops like almonds, pistachios, and rice. These crops and the water practices used with them have been for decades based on the idea of a limitless supply of water. This is an obvious myth that has recently been dispelled in the worst of ways.
The agricultural industry also practices a wasting of a massive amount of the state’s water on purpose because of antiquated water appropriation rights and “water seniority” that families 4 or 5 generations later are still using. According to these laws the first families that settled in California in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, have an allocated amount of water that must be used every year or the water rights will go to someone else.
So when it comes to something like rice cultivation, which is already a water intensive crop, these farmers are encouraged to use extremely wasteful watering practices. For example with rice, the farmers literally open the pumps and completely flood the fields giving the landscape a strange algal green hue when viewed aerially, while the surrounding land is as brown and parched as a desert. This waste of water guarantees that they will have the same water allocations as the year before and have contributed greatly to the drought.
So the farmers that were not a part of the original settlers and were not grandfathered into this system, are hurting very badly. In 2014 alone 500,000 acres of crops were forced to go fallow because the water needed was simply unavailable.This number will only rise in 2015 and is inversely related to the 17,000 farmer jobs that were lost in 2014.
The situation in California can be perceived in a slightly positive mindset because it is affecting a very large region, but only this one region. This allows us a chance to really address water crises that will affect us around the country and the world, and conduct a real time experiment to see which practices will best help us in the coming years.
Along with all the efforts in cities and by everyday citizens to educate themselves and help the situation, we can start looking at real ways to change how we’re growing our food. This is where aquaponics can and will come into play along with all the other new conservation practices in agriculture, such as hydroponics, that are also being implemented.
Depending on the build, location, and crops of an aquaponics system, water use compared to traditional agriculture can be reduced by as much as 90% and 60-70% on the lower end of the spectrum. Compared to traditional watering systems this is a massive saving of water. Imagine if we could reduce the 80% share of California’s agricultural water use by 90% or even 10% the positive effect it could have on future water levels.
It takes a simple understanding of how an aquaponics system works to understand how it is so efficient at saving water. The entirety of the water that is added to the system is constantly recirculated and is contained in a closed loop system so there is no need for flooding, hose watering, or even drip irrigation ( which is the most efficient method of watering currently being used on a large scale in agricultural fields.)
The water that is recirculated in the closed loop system is lost only from what is called evapotranspiration, which simply put is the exact amount of water a plant needs to grow, nothing wasted. In any system we also have the chance of small leaks, and if the sun is out we will have a small amount naturally evaporate, and that’s it. It’s truly amazing how much potential alternative agriculture has as a solution to the current water crisis in California.
The small number of aquaponics companies operating in California make up a minuscule fraction of the total agricultural output. But recently they are experiencing a boom in sales as everyone from restaurants to consumers are searching for food options that are truly concerned with water conservation.
Water is more than just a simple resource like we would consider timber or metal or even food, it is the source of all life on our planet in conjunction with the energy we receive from the sun. If the sun stopped shining entirely tomorrow we may be able to survive marginally for quite some time with our current technology.
But no technology can bring us new water, what we have is what we get. We have to strive to look at our water situation as something that is truly all of ours. It all works in symbiosis with all the processes of the earth and one country or state’s water situation can and will eventually become a problem for a neighbor.
Aquaponics seems like a drop in the bucket of what we truly need to do and change to ameliorate the crisis that is happening in California and increasingly around the world concerning water.
But it is more than that, if we can feed ourselves using alternative methods that truly conserve large amounts of water, we are giving ourselves as humanity a huge head start in a future that will be increasingly anxious about where our water will come from and what it will go to.