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Protecting our water resources

On March 22, we recognized World Water Day. American communities and rural areas depend on a safe and reliable water supply. The droughts that many parts of this country have experienced in recent years have put securing a safe and reliable water supply in the spotlight. But the drought issue is much broader than a lack of water resources. Continued variations from the historical rate of water supply, demand, and quality are projected to have major impacts on agricultural, forest, and rangeland production systems. The science and management of water requires consideration about how this vital resource impacts food, climate change, energy, health, and the environment.

NIFA has made it a priority to tackle critical water issues by catalyzing the development of both regional systems for sustainable use and reuse and focusing on issues related to production agriculture and environmental sustainability efforts.

Here are a few highlights of impacts from NIFA’s previously funded water-related projects:

Information and data are key for agricultural producers who are developing management plans for their production systems. But the bigger challenge is predicting and preparing for climate over the course of a season. Researchers from Texas A&M University, North Carolina State University, and Purdue University are using past climate data and analyses of current climate and precipitation and converting them into drought indices. These data have been compiled into a drought trigger tool developed by these universities and is available online. Digital resources include detailed drought information to help farmers and ranchers make informed decisions tailored to their regional needs.

Agriculture uses more than 70% of available freshwater, and, therefore, there is a huge need for reducing water use through sustainable agriculture practices. . Researchers at Colorado State University (CSU) have been working to identify the water-related changes and pressures producers face in the Colorado River Basin to learn about management solutions that may conserve water throughout the region. In 2015, the U.S. Department of the Interior called for an initiative to help Colorado River Basin agriculture conserve as much as one million acre feet of water, which will require unprecedented changes in how water is used in agriculture. Meeting this challenge would require changes in irrigation practices as well as political, social, economic, and administrative changes.  During the severe drought of 2012, CSU Extension staff worked with producers around the state to prepare them for the upcoming growing season. Extension educators provided producers information on up-to-date, cutting-edge agricultural practices to maximize water use without compromising yields. The project team saw widespread adoption of limited irrigation techniques and well-designed irrigation technology, crop splitting, no-till, and moisture monitoring practices. Despite the historic drought conditions that occurred, producers in Colorado achieved the 25th most productive corn harvest and 14th most productive wheat harvest in state history.

Water management also has food safety implications. For example, Contamination of raw produce has been increasingly implicated as the cause of foodborne outbreaks in the United States, with the bacteria Escherichia coli being one of the main culprits. Often, the primary cause of E. coli outbreaks is the contamination of the internal tissue of plants, something that a postharvest wash is not effective in stopping. With NIFA funding through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, Saint Onge Orchids in San Marcos, California, developed an automated irrigation system that generates and injects a food-safe disinfectant into irrigation water to prevent microbial growth on internal plant surfaces and tissues. The process uses ozonated water as the disinfectant solution and resulted in a 22 percent reduction in average external contamination levels and incidents of internal contamination, which were found to be directly linked to external contamination. The results of this research has the potential to improve the safety of the food we eat.

Water is the lifeblood of agriculture, and investing in science to preserve the quality and quantity of this essential element is critical. NIFA’s investments are leading to meaningful solutions that maintain and improve water quality and resources for producers, industry professionals, and consumers across the country.

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