Increasingly severe droughts and record low rainfall have forced farmers to rely more heavily on groundwater supplies. But without changing current farming practices, these reserves will run out rapidly. Climate change will make droughts longer and hotter, while rain will only come in harsh storms that will flood crops and erode valuable topsoil without much of it making it down to the groundwater.
The conservation subsidy under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was meant to help farmers employ more environmentally friendly practices. However, research shows the program prompted many farmers to expand their acreage using the water that was supposed to be conserved.
Two recent studies discovered that farmers receiving conservation payments in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico used some of their water savings to expand irrigation or grow thirstier crops, effectively defeating the purpose. The new efficient irrigation equipment has actually shrunk groundwater supplies at an even faster pace, researchers found.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) have pushed responsible water management with bills to require that subsidized irrigation systems keep the conserved water in underground water tables or streams. Water tables have already dropped as much as 150 feet in some areas. Dwindling groundwater supplies coupled with record low rainfalls could transform American farmland into a blighted desert without aggressive water storage policies.
Americans are already wasting dangerously large amounts of water. Water consumption has tripled over the last 50 years, even though the population has not quite doubled in the same time period. The primary culprit is farming irrigation, which accounts for 80 percent of all water use. Most of this water is wasted through mismanagement. Popular sprinkler systems, for instance, lose tons of water to evaporation, while irrigation pipes flood plants with far more water than they can handle.
The last time farmers flouted conservation practices, much of American farmland was lost in the Dust Bowl, plunging hundreds of thousands of people into poverty.
California and other western states are starting to see the consequences of agricultural excess in the form of shrinking crop yields. Some farmers, no longer able to rely on aquifers, are experimenting with risky but more sustainable water-conserving techniques like dry-farming.
Farm subsidies have been hotly contested in Congress during the Farm Bill debate, as they tend to benefit the wealthiest farmers.