Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
A federal survey of water managers revealed that – even under normal conditions – nearly every U.S. state will experience freshwater shortages sometime within the next decade.
That could mean economic disaster for the farmers and agriculture producers who depend on water for irrigation, as the process of carrying water to dry areas consumes more water than anything else each year, according to researchers.
“With irrigation, most of the water is lost to the environment, and it’s what we call a consumptive use,” said Jerad Bales, U.S. Geological Survey chief scientist for water. “It’s clear that irrigation for agriculture, and for golf courses and for lawns is the largest consumptive use of water in the nation.”
The survey was part of a government report released last month on freshwater availability.
Roughly a third of all U.S. farmland requires irrigation in place of natural precipitation. As a result, irrigation consumes about 120 billion gallons of water each day, according to USGS data.
Thermoelectric power plants withdrawal more water, but they return most of it to the environment after using it for cooling purposes.
Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, California and 20 other states will suffer through water shortages on regional scales, according to the survey.
Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, New York and 11 other states will deal with water shortages at least on a local level.
Montana is the only state the will suffer through water shortages on a statewide level.
Most of the surveyed water managers cited irrigation as their greatest water-availability concern.
“There are clearly challenges ahead,” Bales said.
Map: survey of state water managers on freshwater shortage
Nearly every state water manager that the Government Accountability Office surveyed reported that their state will experience some level of freshwater shortage in the next 10 years. According to the survey, Montana is the only state that will likely experience a complete statewide freshwater shortage. Two states did not submit a response to the survey
Map source: Government Accountability Office
Lack of freshwater may prove costly
Duncan Patten, director of the Montana Water Center, said the expected water shortages may prompt some agriculture producers to choose which crops they irrigate.
“In the Southwest, they’re still irrigating crops that use a lot of water,” said Patten. “So, they should be shifting to crops that are low water users if you still want to continue agriculture.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that cotton, corn, pecans and lettuce are some of the top commodities for Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Historically, those southwestern states record fewer than 16 inches of rainfall a year. Many areas in the states record fewer than 8 inches a year.
Water shortages and droughts in the Southwest cost the government tens of millions of dollars when crops fail.
A Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of crop insurance data found that federal indemnity payments to corn producers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas totaled more than $47 million in 2012.
Indemnity payments to cotton producers in those states totaled more than $954 million.
Still, despite an already obvious stress on water, population-growth estimates predict that more people will soon move to the southern and western corners of the country.
U.S. Census Bureau data show that the South will see a population surge of about 43 percent by 2030.
The West will see a population boom of about 46 percent.
Overall, the United States will only experience about a 30 percent population increase during that same time period.
“Bottom line is that we’re going to have to look at what we do irrigate,” Patten said.
To offset some of these issues, the government provides a handful of water-conservation grants. WaterSMART grants, for example, provide financial assistance for projects that save water and improve energy efficiency.
Government officials distributed a total of $21.4 million under the WaterSMART Water and Energy Efficiency Grant program in 2013.
Much of that money went to installing water flow meters and converting open irrigation ditches to pipes, an upgrade that prevents water loss caused by evaporation.
Besides government grants, some water-utility companies – such as American Water – have to devote hundreds of millions of dollars each year toward ensuring their water supply system.
Company documents show that American Water annually invests more than $800 million in efforts related to improving its water system and constructing new water facilities.
“You need to look at the whole picture,” said Matt Corson, manager of environmental compliance and stewardship for American Water. “You can’t just look at today and here and now.”
The company provides water to about 14 million people across 40 states and parts of Canada.
Agricultural producers will know more on water shortages and irrigation challenges in upcoming months. The U.S. Department of Agriculture finished collecting responses to the Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey in February and plans on announcing the results in October.
The 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey reported that agriculture producers spent about $2.1 billion on costs related to irrigation equipment, facilities, land improvements and technology.