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Water resources serve agriculture, energy, society

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Ben Franklin wrote, "When the well's dry, we know the worth of water." Unfortunately, the "well" is running dry in many parts of the world. Worldwide, rivers are running dry prior to reaching the seas because we are over-allocating and overusing them. The Colorado River is over-allocated, and there is not enough water to reach the Gulf of California. In Texas, the Lower Colorado River has not reached the Gulf of Mexico the past two years. Likewise, water levels in aquifers, like the Ogallala in the Great Plains and the Edwards near San Antonio, have dropped significantly.

This is not because there is less water in the world. There is not any less water now than there ever was or will be. The trouble is the location of water. Water vapor in the atmosphere, saltwater on the surface or below ground, or frozen water in the ice caps is not readily usable to us. To paraphrase a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink." It does us little good to have water if it is not of usable quality. We need both water quantity and quality.

Agriculture and energy production are major industries in the Southern Great Plains that require both water quality and quantity. Agricultural irrigation consumes the most water with energy production being the second largest user of water (although with much of it recycled and re-used). Water, agriculture and energy are linked because it takes water to produce energy and it takes energy to develop and move water for agricultural irrigation. But water is not just about irrigation or energy production, or industry or recreation, or wildlife habitat or navigation, etc. Water is about all of these and must be balanced and stretched to meet everyone's needs.

A quote often attributed to Mark Twain but repeated by many others is "whiskey's for drinking and water is for fighting over." One cause of water fights is when water crosses property lines, county lines, state lines or international lines, either above or below ground. Part of the problem is that surface water and groundwater are linked, but surface water and groundwater laws often conflict. This lands many of today's water fights in the court system. However, negotiation would be better to solve these disputes because it is usually less expensive and faster than litigation.

One way we can all be part of the solution is to let go of unrealistic expectations. We also need to realize that water issues are interconnected. A well-intended change in one area can have an unintended negative consequence in another. For instance, no longer using water for agricultural irrigation could have devastating effects on the economy and food production.

Those of us in agriculture can be part of the solution by educating our legislators on water issues before bills reach the floor. Issues come and go, but relationships last a lifetime. We must build relationships with our elected officials so when they need input, they know they can come to us and get good information. In fact, agriculture has an increased opportunity to steward the water because most of the precipitation that falls on the Earth lands on farms, pastures and forests. Perhaps this is one reason why Representative Pat Ownbey, from Ardmore, believes agriculture may be the most knowledgeable group about water issues.

While all of these issues sound like potential problems, I will leave you with this final thought. If you do not have water, you only have one problem. If you do not have food, you only have one problem. Aren't we lucky to have so many problems?

Jim Johnson serves as a senior soils and crops consultant at Noble Research Institute, where he has worked since 1999. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in soil science from the University of Illinois and a master’s degree in agronomy from Oklahoma State University, he worked in various plant breeding programs in Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma. His interests are cover crops and soil health.