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Drought requires us to rethink food production

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

– Benjamin Franklin

It feels odd to live in western Oregon and write about impending water shortages. Historically, Oregon is perhaps best known for its almost unendurable rainy season and the abundance of water it brings.

But a glance at the online “U.S. Drought Monitor,” a map of drought-stricken regions that’s updated every week, tells a disturbing story. Half the Midwest and virtually all the western states are experiencing drought conditions, most ranging from “severe” to “extreme.”

While Oregon is only partially afflicted – to date, about half of the state is “abnormally dry,” with “moderate” to “severe” drought in the south – all of California is gripped by “severe” drought. The drought spread north from Arizona and south from Oregon subsuming the international agricultural giant this spring – just in time for the growing season. Simultaneously, the Sierra Nevada snowpacks that provide about one-third of California’s water are about 35 percent below normal levels.

The drought conditions in the western states are connected in two ways. One, because of the underlying global-warming conditions driving these long-predicted effects, the drought is likely to spread and get worse, on average, in the coming decades. Two, because the drought is so widespread, there is no place to turn for water.

California can’t get water from Oregon – although it might try to use its “big state” muscle to expropriate some – because Oregon is unlikely to have enough to share. Colorado also has no more water to give, so Arizona, along with southern Nevada and California, most likely will “dry up and blow away.” The resulting economic disruption could force people to leave those areas en masse, exacerbating drought problems in somewhat wetter states such as Oregon and Washington – and there’s the “global” in global warming. It affects everyone.

What can be done?

It is unlikely that complicated and expensive government initiatives such as the construction of desalinization plants will be undertaken in a timely fashion. But citizens of goodwill can try to get ahead of the drought curve by voluntarily conserving water – and, if the situation gets bad enough, by capturing and storing rainwater. While such efforts would do little to slow the advancing and deepening drought, they could slow the onslaught of its negative effects, giving us more time to adjust.

My previous column was about ordinary people committing to growing at least part of their own food in their gardens as a response to a warming world and an industrial agricultural system that’s beginning to break down. A key factor in that breakdown is drought, so part of the trick of adapting to global-warming conditions is to use the minimum amount of water to produce the maximum amount of nutritious food.

The process begins with learning, observing and record-keeping. How much water do your plants need? What’s the best way to water them when they are young and once they are established? (Hint: As a rule, water them frequently and shallowly when the seeds are germinating and the plants are tiny; after they are established, water deeply once or twice a week.)

Is your soil hardpan (clay) that repels water? Porous soil (sandy) that drains too quickly? Or is it humus-filled, spongy loam that retains water well but drains off excess? How can you enhance inferior soils?

How well do water-saving techniques such as mulching and drip irrigation work? How can you measure the amount of water you’re using?

What would you do if you could no longer turn on a hose and draw as much water as you want for your garden and yard? Could you grow food with significantly less water? What kind of food?

Fortunately, there are myriad resources, including university extension service websites and authoritative reference books, to help answer these questions. We’ll explore some of these answers in upcoming columns.

Meanwhile, to prepare for the long drought, we’ll have to rethink the prevailing concept of home vegetable gardening as a hobby that provides mostly frilly, nonessential (and water-intensive) salad makings. Instead, we’ll need to look at it as a vital food source that must be managed sustainably at your ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via e-mail through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.

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