Talking Agricultural Water Resilience With USEPA Administrator Michael Regan
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On March 31st USEPA Administrator Michael Regan and Rep. Wiley Nickel traveled to Clayton, NC to make an announcement about new federal funds for water and wastewater infrastructure.
After that announcement, I was invited to serve on a panel to brief them on what they may need to know about the agricultural industry’s needs regarding water. Below are the remarks prepared prior to the meeting. They can be considered a broad overview of the growing need in the agricultural community for guidance about water resource issues.
Agriculture is our leading industry in NC and it is about to eclipse the $100 billion dollar threshold. Water resiliency is critical to sustainable agriculture. Resiliency in water requires that we pay attention to both water QUANTITY and water QUALITY issues. Quantity issues include both too little and too much water, while quality issues include the quality of the water we use for farming operations and the impacts of farming operations on downstream waters.
We are rather lucky in NC with the amount of rainfall we receive, so too little water is not nearly the issue as it is in our western states. But we do deal with occasional drought whose timing can affect crop production. There are areas in Eastern NC in the Central Coastal Plain Capacity Use Area around Greenville where aquifer levels have to be protected against the competing agricultural, rural , and urban uses. This is going to become an even more important issue as the population in NC increases and there becomes more competition between urban and rural areas.
Too much water is also a quantity issue, and one we have seen all too frequently over the past few years in NC. Precipitation patterns have been changing- you don’t necessarily need to ask the state climate office – just ask any farmer and most will agree that the frequency of intense rainfall has increased and dealing with saturated fields has become more frequent.
To make matters worse, the effects of sea-level rise (SLR) are starting to be realized. SLR is not just affecting coastal downtown and residential communities with more regular nuisance flooding. Many of the canals that were built to improve on-farm drainage now serve as conduits for salty water to make its way to farmland during extreme tides and wind tides, diminishing drainage and introducing salt to farmland, both of which threatens yields.
Given these new pressures, many of the current on-farm practices that have been successful in the past might not be as effective in the future. So we need continued support in the development of climate smart agriculture; infrastructure, practices, and technology that can stand alone or work in tandem to address water quantity issues. Some things that come to mind is infrastructure to protect farms against the effects of SLR, such as tide gates, bulkheads, and pumps. Examples of practices and technologies include water reuse systems that capture agricultural drainage water that can be later used for irrigation, and the emergence of new state of the art in-field sensors and remote sensing that can automatically control drainage and irrigate only the portions of the fields that may need it to conserve water. We also need support at studying ways to minimize downstream flooding by using concepts like “water farming” that allows some fields along major rivers to be occasionally flooded to minimize downstream effects during major events.
The QUALITY of the water used during farming practices and the effect of agriculture on watershed health are both receiving considerable attention for good reason. Some of the issues we are facing include:
Animal waste from our swine, poultry, and dairy farms. Lagoons and spray fields are the practices most often used for liquid waste, but solid wastes (like from poultry litter or lagoon sludge) are also applied to fields. Problems can arise from nitrogen and phosphorus losses from our fields and challenges associated with lagoons as they reach the end of their useful life. There has been some success in anaerobic digestion of waste that can be used in biogas production, however it still leaves behind concentrated nutrients in residual solids that must be managed. So we are going to need some support to identify ways to deal with concentrated sources of nutrients perhaps with regionalized nutrient recycling.
Technologies like water control structures that are used to control drainage outflows from fields also reduce downstream pollution in rural areas. These practices can be integrated with sensors to provide automatic control of drainage water during certain times of the year that can reduce nutrient pollution AND increase crop yields.
Many farmers are concerned with emerging contaminants like PFAS and the safety of the surface and groundwater they use for irrigation or for animal watering. Identifying whether there is a problem in a certain region is one concern, followed by evaluating technologies or practices needed to treat the water or locating alternative sources if it is contaminated.
We also need to make sure we continue to address environmental justice concerns in agricultural and rural areas. Drinking water well quality comes to mind. Over 4 million North Carolinians rely on well water for their drinking water, and we must make sure that anything we do in these watersheds – whether it be ag, development, or industry – protects the quality of this water to ensure the health and well being of this population.
This is just a high level summary of some of the water-related issues that we must continue to address in agriculture and rural communities. While a significant amount of money is flowing into other important water/wastewater infrastructure projects, and to support our coastal towns to protect against flooding, it is very important that we keep an eye on supporting water resilience in agriculture.
Are you an Extension Agent interested in joining the Water Resources Program Team and learning more about these initiatives? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.