It was T. Boone Perkins who said it first, it’s all about water
T. Boone Perkins was the kind of dude who at a whim would bankroll a swamp-bottomed Republican on one occasion and a junk-yard-dog Democrat the next. As a zealous oil man, he wasn’t afraid to say the outrageous, such as “water is more important than oil,” if once upon a time this remark was very outrageous.
That he said so in Playboy magazine ostensibly designed for colored-underwear guys whose immediate goal was neither oil nor water also describes the precarious person of T. Boone Perkins.
For the sake of historical clarity, I am less a farmer than I am an irrigator. My immediate predecessors were actual farmers who got their chance to do so exclusively at nature’s behest, I vaguely remember what that was like. Like shoveling snow in bare feet, same degree of unpleasant exposure.
Irrigation can be likened to the difference between having a prayer and having a ticket. Those of my kind still alive and able to call ourselves farmers in central Wisconsin are likely to be irrigators.
Many of us farm on fields and lands traditionally non-irrigated, soils capable of holding crop moisture through a modest dry spell; clays, silt loams, loams, muck. Problem being when it doesn’t rain from half past June till Aug. 1, even silt loam is banging on empty.
To cite here the increase of irrigation on traditionally non-irrigated lands, the result of higher input costs, where the dry summer prospect of crop failure is more injurious to the bottom line with N pushing $500/per ton and potash waging equality in the gold market. As a result of increased costs even statistical seasonal failure is not a good option.
Irrigation in terms of productivity in rare terms is capable of quadrupling yields, in the worst case irrigation spells the difference between something and nothing. Recent summers in central Wisconsin have seen isolated incidents of high-capacity wells running dry, mostly the consequence of the well’s initial design and a short-sheet aquifer once thought adequate.
Even in an area presumed to be homogenous as the Central Sands, significant differences exist in soil types including their aquifer and well capacity. Because of soil type some areas of the Sands require twice the irrigation for the same crop. With moderate pumpage costs and available aquifer, this presents no problem, only to suggest with an increase in those costs some areas now thought irrigatable and productive might not remain so.
Any change in the availability of water could drastically alter Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape. Yet to factor the specter of global warming/climate change and we’re talking more than a new deck, rather a new game.
Irrigation as a field practice has been abandoned in other states, most famously California where water rights have simply become too valuable for ag use, where it is more profitable to sell the water than the crop.
In Nebraska and Texas, the deep wells of the Ogallala Aquifer are well-known as finite, an endangered resource to which some are responding accordingly. The first option was to scrap the corner system that nearly doubles the water use but provides minimal production increase. Regional constraints on the Ogallala are in variable practice with draft forms limiting wasteful irrigation from this non-replenishable source.
Alternate crops and alternate techniques may help provide for a long-term future. Beyond are some brave and horrendously expensive schemes to replenish the Ogallala in the guise of water injection facilities utilizing excess water events hundreds of miles distant.
Accustomed as we are to bail-outs with a multiplicity of zeros, the likelihood of restoring and stabilizing the Ogallala in the near future is slight, but at the same time the overt threat of losing it entirely could be a transforming phenomenon.
Irrigation in the Central Sands is now in its third generation. Systematic over-irrigation has been generally eliminated by hardware improvements and scheduling, at the same time the benefits of the aquifer have been expanded to more fields for a net increase in water demand. Alfalfa is now routinely irrigated, soybeans once practiced as a dry land crop is now strategically irrigated, the Antigo potato seed area was mostly non-irrigated, the benefit of its unique Antigo silt, is almost universally irrigated.
The current health of the Central Sands “Ojibwa Aquifer” (without any authority I decided to give the central Wisconsin aquifer a name as brave as that of the Ogallala, both with a sense of the abiding native) is relatively stable, though this depends on who you ask.
Concern has been voiced for its nitrification but in general these numbers have leveled off the result of precision techniques, new materials and advanced field methods. It is possible that in another generation we may see nitrate levels actually decrease, but the core issue is the aquifer itself, exposed to an ever-expanding demand, a demand in turn exacerbated by weather cycles, farm sector economics, narrowing margins, where even food grading standards play a role, beyond, out there somewhere, is climate change and the portent for baseline change.
Add the effects of E.T., an ever more open topography whether its fields, housing or roadways, and the issues experienced by the Little Plover River may not be incidental as the proverbial canary, hinting of broad sector impact with unprecedented outcomes.
In this light, just how sustainable is the Ojibwa Aquifer? What is the precise relationship of the aquifer to annual precipitation? What constitutes fair use? What is a fair parameter for draw-down? What does sustainable look like?
The Ojib (familiarity has set in already) is the engine of this region’s commerce, the productive output of the Sands is prodigious and every future forecast whether brevited on energy demand, field productivity, water supply, sustainability, distance to market or crop spectrum has this resource becoming increasingly precious.
Despite Wisconsin’s notable winter, a new array of commercial production for the Sands hints of potential, a crop profile more typical of frost-free growing areas, genetically designed for our region.
A short list … tomatoes, peppers, lettuce along with other seasonal produce that may well be lost to California for multiple cause. Add Wisconsin’s proximity to the marketplace, for half the continent the Sands constitute a local food source. It is the sheer potential of this aquifer that underscores the effort to understand, define and protect Wisconsin’s fabulous Ojibwa Aquifer.
At its essentials; what constitutes fair use? If municipalities pump without significant recharge areas established, is that fair? If farms pump without similar recharge areas within their immediate practice area, is that fair?
Ethically, any farm’s right to irrigate crops is conditioned by its participation in the survival and health of the aquifer; crudely translated means woodland tracts and wetlands. A farm operation of 90 percent field practice is not contributing to its own recharge. Add climatological stress, field use, forest loss, urbanization, diversion, population, expansive field design, excessive area drainage and this lack of recharge amounts to public larceny. Wisconsin growers need to create that matrix of farm and field design as constitute fair aquifer use, and this pending the adjustments of climatic change.
Water is, or will soon become, the core issue just about everywhere on this planet. If we think the Middle East is currently a tad volatile, an available ammo dump combined with immiscible ethnic and religious dogmas … wait until acute water shortages hit the proverbial fan.
We need not be smug; sea level changes, climate alterations, ever-pressing population and migration, energy, immigration, urban space, industrialization all will have broad impacts on water.
While we cannot predict the details, we can pack for the trip. An industry and university consortium dedicated to our water resource, its use and future is a good place to start. Wisconsin growers tend to hate the word “management,” it sounds agency-driven, of paperwork, complex, argumentative … there is no other option. As T. Boone says, it’s about water.