U.S. farmers could ease drain on world water supply

ITHACA, New York, October 21, 2004 (ENS): Cornell University ecologists are targeting farmers for water conservation incentives, saying that agriculture in the United States consumes 80 percent of the available fresh water each year, and 60 percent of U.S. water intended for crop irrigation never reaches the crops.

Their report in the October 2004 issue of the journal "BioScience" is critical of irrigation practices in the United States, where subsidized "cheap water" offers little incentive for conservation.

"Part of the problem is the decision by farmers on what to grow where," says David Pimentel, a Cornell professor who led nine student ecologists through an exhaustive analysis of research conducted at other institutions and government agencies.

"We learned, for example, that to produce wheat using irrigation requires three times more fossil energy than producing the same quantity of rain-fed wheat.

"The next time you make a sandwich, think about this," said Pimentel, "one pound of bread requires 250 gallons of water to produce the grains that go into the bread."

At particular risk are aquifers, underground repositories of water that are tapped by wells for agricultural irrigation and drinking water. "Given that many aquifers are being over-drafted, government efforts are needed to limit the pumping to sustainable withdrawal levels," the Cornell ecologists write.

The advocate integrated water resource management programs which "offer many opportunities to conserve water resources for everyone, farmers and the public."

Water-conserving irrigation practices, like drip irrigation, should be implemented to reduce water waste, they advise, and water subsidies should be eliminated.

Forests, wetlands and natural resources should be protected to enhance the conservation of water, the ecologists say, and water pollution "needs to be controlled to protect public health, agriculture and the environment."


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