Knowing Your Roots

Posts tagged ‘irrigation’

Plants, Water, and Landscapes

Blog 17When it is warm and dry, you have probably noticed that plants require a lot of water to stay healthy, but did you know that only 10% of the water a plant receives actually remains inside of it to support life processes? Plants lose the other 90% of their required water (liquid) as water vapor (gas) to the atmosphere through a process known as evapotranspiration (ET), which is a combination of water the plants emit from pores in their leaves (transpiration) and water that evaporates from soil and plant surfaces.  ET uses a tremendous amount of solar energy, and this energy use coupled to the plant water use is referred to as the water-energy cycle of a landscape. When humans alter the composition of plants across a landscape (i.e. urbanization, agriculture), they also alter the water-energy cycle.  (more…)

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Water – The Critically Important Resource for our Nation’s Food Security

Blog 16

In this current blog series we have been featuring graduate student research on potatoes in Wisconsin, and so far we have covered research in plant breeding, seed production and pest management. We are concluding this student series with 4 blogs on a topic that has emerged as one of the most critical issues facing agriculture today—water.  Will there be a sufficient supply in the coming decades to maintain the productivity and security of our nation’s food supply while guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of the resource in future generations for all to enjoy?

In Wisconsin, the issue of water and its availability is particularly acute in the Central Sands region, which is one of the top five vegetable growing regions in the nation where potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, peas, carrots and cucumbers all rank near the top of U.S. production.  The foundation of the region’s productivity lies in its geological history, which began during the glacial ice age that encompassed Wisconsin over 15,000 years ago.  The Central Sands is a large and relatively flat glacial outwash plain that deposited abundant sandy soils—ideal for vegetable production—and is underlain by a deep groundwater aquifer that provides the water, vital for crop growth and productivity.

The region covers nearly 1,400 square miles and now supports 200,000 irrigated acres, but prior to the 1950s it was not farmed because there was no efficient way to utilize the abundant water supply and as such, much of the area remained undeveloped.  In the mid-1950s, however, this largely unused, resource-poor area was transformed rapidly when modern irrigation technology became available and affordable due to aluminum supplies increasing after World War II.  This raw material provided farmers the ability to build and deploy the center pivot irrigation systems that could, for the first time, deliver water to 160 acre crop fields in less than 24 hours.  This quickly transformed the regional economic landscape into a thriving specialty crop production area which now supports a $6.4 billion food production industry and generates close to 40,000 jobs within the state of Wisconsin.   (more…)

Stepping Up to the Plate: Wisconsin Farmers Provide the Resources to Tackle Water Issues in Central Wisconsin

Blog 52

Few now question that our planet’s resources are being challenged by our relentless population growth, and yet most of us are unable to do anything meaningful to address these far reaching issues. Water is among the most precious of these resources, and farmers in all parts of the world are struggling to find ways to use water more wisely while preserving its availability for future generations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wisconsin’s Central Sands—one of the most productive potato and vegetable growing areas in the US, which depends on irrigation to produce the food that is needed to provide food security for the nation. The water needed for irrigation is drawn from an extensive aquifer (underlying several counties) that was formed in glacial times and has been replenished annually by rainfall and snow melt for over a half century. Evidence in recent years, however, suggests that water levels in parts of the aquifer may be declining and that this is adversely impacting some of the surface water lakes and streams connected to the groundwater. The reasons for this are complex and may be related to a combination of factors including shifting rainfall patterns, extending growing seasons, the need to irrigate more to meet increasing crop demand, and expanding rural communities and industries.

The potato and vegetable growers in the Central Sands are not content to debate causes, and they have united to proactively seek solutions. In 2011, the growers joined forces with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and researchers from several University of Wisconsin departments to launch a major new Conservation Innovation Grant to examine ways to use water more efficiently. This 3-year landmark study “Preserving water resources in Central Wisconsin” was awarded $700,000 in competitive federal funding AND the award required matching funds from farmers to become a reality. This is where the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association and the Midwest Food Processors Association stepped to the plate and hit a bases loaded home run by pledging a whopping $634,000 to secure the funds. This is money raised annually from grower-members and demonstrates the commitment these growers have to the future. The grant is now entering its 3rd year and is already justifying every penny of investment.   (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Conserving water and changing the landscape

Blog 32

The Central Sands is one of the nation’s premier potato and vegetable production areas, ranking 3rd in potatoes, 1st in snap beans and 3rd in sweet corn.  Agriculture in the Central Sands is vital to Wisconsin’s economy, generating over $6.4 billion in revenue and providing 35,000 jobs.  This agricultural bounty is possible because of the area’s broad expanse of fertile soils (developed as a result of retreating glaciers over 10,000 years ago), by our mild temperate climate, from the hard work and dedication of the farmers who settled, manage and continue to operate on the landscape and ultimately, the groundwater.   (more…)

Thoughts for Food: Balancing the water, how we can all contribute

Blog 31

When the glaciers retreated from central Wisconsin over 10,000 years ago, they left behind a broad expanse of sand and gravel outwash plains to create the area that we now know as the Central Sands. In the intervening years, this mostly featureless area of lakebed and sand has evolved both naturally and with our help into a cornucopia of lakes, streams, wetlands, forests and irrigated agricultural fields.

In relatively recent times (the kind that can be measured in half centuries), the changes have been little short of spectacular. Specialty crop agriculture has expanded with improvements in irrigation and production technologies and become one of the premier vegetable production centers in the US.  As our ability to grow high quality vegetables expanded, the food processing industry grew with it; the potato, green bean, sweet corn and pea canning and freezing plants in and surrounding the Sands have become the envy of the nation.   Both the  proximity of the Wisconsin River and the availability of groundwater— often only feet from the land surface—have allowed the paper industry to grow pines and prosper.  The dairy industry, for which the state is famous, represents the next step as the Sands provides an ideal opportunity to integrate new cropping systems to bolster the potato and vegetable crops we already grow so successfully.  The agricultural and industrial growth has brought prosperity, jobs (an estimated 35,000 from agriculture alone) and new opportunities for continued economic development that has enabled vibrant rural communities to emerge and grow—all this in an area that was economically depressed a scant 60 years ago.

Let’s not forget, however, that everything we now cherish in the Sands, from its lakes and streams that we fish and enjoy, to the prosperity and employment that its agriculture brings, is ultimately connected to and dependent on the groundwater aquifer that nature provided all those thousands of years ago and maintains to this day with generous rainfall. We must maintain a balance between the water that we all need and use and the water that nature returns to ensure that the Sands continue to evolve.

Evolution is a continuous process, and we are often unaware that change is actually happening. The climate also fluctuates through time and impacts that change.  We currently benefit from a warming trend that has extended our growing season by two weeks and boosted crop yield.  The downside is that it has also brought dry spells like the drought of 2011-12; we need to use more water than nature provides during these periods, which can limit the aquifer from recharging.  Climate fluctuation also brought wet periods, as in the spring 2013, that flood basements and delay crops but also begins the process of restoring the aquifer’s balance. These natural processes have been fluctuating through the history of the Sands.

The pictures with this article show us that these fluctuations are not new. Pleasant Lake in the southeastern corner of Waushara County has been identified in recent citizen forums as an area of the highest priority because irrigated agriculture has grown, and new dairy expansion has been proposed. The lake water is down and solutions such as limiting irrigation are being actively discussed.  But the photos of Pleasant Lake in 1958 compared to the same spot in 2013 show that lake levels have also been  lower in the past. This does not mean that we should be any less concerned about the lake levels today, but perhaps we should broaden our thinking.  The seemingly obvious link between irrigation and lake levels may be more complicated than it seems—there was essentially no irrigation in 1958 to account for the low lake levels at that time.

We are dealing with a complex ecosystem in the Central Sands; it is naturally fluctuating and evolving through time. We all have an impact on the balance between the water we use and the rate at which it can be recharged. There will be no silver bullet solution, but perhaps we all have roles to play:

  • We all need a better understanding of the system and how it functions before we can design long-term solutions that will work.  We are doing this by jointly supporting university research.
  • The farmers need to do all they can to use water more effectively.  They are doing this by irrigating more efficiently and changing the crop landscape to one that needs less water.
  • The food processors need to return the water they use to the aquifer.  They are doing this by irrigating wash water onto pastures for filtered recharge.
  • Rural communities need to design systems that do not remove water from the system. They are doing this by creating new recharge areas, retention ponds and drainage designs to divert water back to the aquifer to feed the lakes and streams.

Finally all the citizens of the Sands, whether they live on lakes or in towns, need to be aware that the water they use to live and to recreate comes from the same source.  Everything they do that is connected to water can collectively have an impact.  Only by working together can we be sure that the balance of water use and water recharge is maintained as the Sands evolves into the future.

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