How to prepare for a future with less water

Water scarcity is the biggest challenge facing horticulture. Learn what you can do to adapt.

California could run out of water by next year, according to a NASA water scientist, and other areas are threatened by shortages. It’s a scary thought — and one that hits close to home for horticultural producers who rely heavily on the commodity.

To fully comprehend the current water situation in the United States, it’s important to understand how we got here. As Texas A&M Water Economist Dr. Ron Griffin puts it, “We have the tendency to point to drought as the problem, when the real problem is us.”

Griffin notes that not everyone is experiencing drought. Water is plentiful in some parts of the country, but according to NASA, California is losing millions of acre-feet of stored water each year.

The Root of the Problem

The real root of the problem, Griffin says, is poor water pricing strategies. “You don’t have to go back 100 years in this nation to find a situation where water wasn’t scarce anywhere. What was scarce was the infrastructure — the capital to move that water to where we wanted it or to store that water for when we wanted it,” he explains. As a result, we developed a pricing system that focused on paying the costs of holding and moving water.

What we didn’t to take into consideration — and still don’t today — is the value of the raw material itself. Not only do tap and farm gate water prices exclude the value of natural water in our rivers and aquifers before it is harnessed, the price of water is fairly static. It doesn’t move with scarcity the way other commodities’ prices do. Griffin points to gasoline as an example: What if we treated it the same way we treat water?

“If gasoline didn’t include the value of crude oil in its price, it would be much cheaper than it is,” he says. “You would use more of it than you do. You might drive a larger car than you do and travel farther.”

Politically, the idea of increasing the price of water isn’t popular, and for the green industry, it could be devastating to the bottom line. But, if things continue the way they are now, we’re going to exhaust water supplies prematurely in many locales and end up with worse problems than higher prices.

As Bob Dolibois, the retired chief staff executive of the American Nursery & Landscape Association puts it, that’s a “double whammy” for growers. Not only does the water crisis make it harder to propagate and grow plants to market size, there’s also the issue of shrinking demand for plants from landscape and retail buyers, he says, even if growers have sufficient water to produce the crops.

What Can You Do?

Dolibois isn’t panicked. “There’s still time for the industry to react with positive prevention,” he says. He offers a three-pronged solution:

  • We must better understand how much water different plant varieties really need to survive and thrive. The industry must launch a significant effort to first define minimal water needs for common plants, and then educate ourselves and then our customers accordingly.
  • We must get better organized to deal with a water crisis before it occurs. That means being active in our community relations, more politically connected and, most of all, coming together with other horticulture business sectors to pool information and resources necessary to combat injury from water restrictions.
  • We should be doing everything we can to understand and promote the concept of knowledge-based landscaping and “right plant in the right place.” We should develop more varieties of drought-resistant plants and ensure that we produce and market them favorably.
Dr. Charlie Hall, Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University, adds that it’s important for industry researchers to continue developing new irrigation technologies and monitoring approaches. Water-saving technologies will play a key role in overcoming the water crisis.

In the meantime, he offers some suggestions for growers to implement their own water-saving strategies:
  • Improved operational management practices, such as the grouping of plants according to similar water requirements, can significantly reduce water use as well as reduce labor and the potential for overwatering certain crops.
  • Capturing irrigation runoff and rainfall and storing excess water in holding ponds or reservoirs can provide additional water and reduce the need for outside water supplies during drier periods.
  • Growing and selling plants that are water sensible for the locations where they will be used can result in substantial water savings.

Taking Action

Hall notes that the issues of water conservation and management — and their implications on horticultural businesses — won’t go away anytime soon.

“All industry participants need to make a concerted effort to move toward adopting practices that allow them to operate with less water, reduce wasted water and to have less pollution impacts on the environment,” he says. “Fortunately, technologies and resources are available to help them curb their water usage, increase efficiency, save money and help ensure the vitality of the industry.”

Today, more and more growers have found that using STOCKOSORB® advanced hydrogel technology allows them to better manage their water use more responsibly. STOCKOSORB® is mixed into the growing media to increase the water-holding capacity, while also decreasing water and nutrient losses due to seepage, evaporation and runoff. Absorbed water and nutrients are then slowly released to plants on demand, when they need it. 

“For us, STOCKOSORB® has resulted in less watering, reduced shrink and less plant stress, which further equates to less disease and insects.” — Bob’s Market and Greenhouses Inc., Mason, WV

Make your water go farther while improving the health of your plants. To find out more about how STOCKOSORB® advanced hydrogel technology can help your growing operation, contact Tiffanie Roach at 336-335-3764 or email Stockosorb@evonik.com.

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