Water, water – it's not quite everywhere

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When I was a kid I was "born again," a process that involved being fully and totally immersed in water.

Much more recently I was on the home stretch of an 8-mile walk in the hot sun when the minister I was with kindly poured drinking water on my noggin.

As soon as my hair was sopping wet, I felt born anew, able to complete the walk with at least a smidgen of spring in my step.

Just a cup or two of water, supplied at the crucial time and applied to best advantage, made all the difference.

What would you imagine is the largest use of water in the United States?

Would it be what goes on everyday in kitchens for meal preparation? Or the weekly washing of laundry? Bathrooms and what we do in them? Perhaps commercial car washes use more water than your home?

Actually, irrigation makes up the most significant use of fresh water in the United States. In a nutshell, some farmers use a lot of water to grow crops on semi-arid or marginal land.

There are some significant drawbacks to irrigation. Fresh water is a precious resource, and using so much of it for farming can be criticized as profligate. Beyond that, irrigation can degrade soil, making it saltier over time as water evaporates repeatedly in hot and dry regions.

But there are two major ideas to keep in mind. The first is that irrigation truly helps us produce food for the 7 billion mouths we now have on the planet.

In various parts of the United States we irrigate to grow everything from vegetables to wheat and rice. And, as most of us vaguely know but we don't often articulate, American farmers feed us well and also produce enough for many millions of others around the world.

All those facts came to mind recently when I read of a University of Wisconsin study about irrigation on the global scale. The bottom line of the study is that global irrigation patterns increase farming output substantially. In fact, that increase is almost as great as all of U.S. farming output rolled into one sum.

Interestingly, the Wisconsin researchers believe irrigation around the world is used close to maximum efficiency.

In some ways the efficiency of global irrigation is good news - we humans are not being wasteful with our fresh water. But it also means that as world population continues to increase, we can't feed more mouths just by upping our irrigation efficiency.

Fresh water is one resource that, like energy, goes into all sorts of our products and activities. But it's a limited resource, the use of which has significant environmental impact. What we want to do with it is something we could well afford to think about more clearly.

One thing is evident to me: I want us to always have enough water to pour over the heads of old ladies taking long walks on hot summer mornings.

E. Kirsten Peters, Ph.D, is rural Northwest native. Her column is a service of Washington State University. Contact her at epeters@wsu.edu.
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