Farmers have their eyes to the skies as they watch, and often wait, for water.
Critical for all living things, water is more than just a raindrop and a good wash; it is a social determinate of health and the very foundation of our being and of food production.
Less than two per cent of the Earth’s surface is fresh water and Canada is in the envious position of holding 20 per cent of global freshwater reserves within her borders.
That does not, however, release us from understanding and protecting our water resources. More importantly, the scarcity of water globally and our profession as food producers call on us to ensure that our use of water is measurable and transparent.
Water is in and for all things. In Canada, one of the world’s largest producers of hydro, a full 63 per cent of water usage is for thermal power generation. All manufacturing uses 16 per cent. It takes 10 litres of water to produce a litre of gasoline and 300 litres of water to make a kilogram of paper. Manufacturing a pair of jeans consumes 7,600 litres of water. The Alberta oil and gas industry uses a lot of water with a full 98 per cent of all fracking tapping into freshwater supplies.
At the municipal level, half the water is used for toilets and another 20 per cent for washing machines — both of which folks are not too anxious to live without. Municipal water usage accounts for 11.3 per cent of Canadian water consumption and the majority of that (88 per cent) is pulled from rivers and streams.
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Agriculture, which along with agri-food, contributes 6.6 per cent of national GDP and is the employer of one in eight persons in Canada. Water usage in agriculture is 8.9 per cent. This includes irrigation which in itself may double productivity. Any action that creates contamination upstream from manufacturing, resource development or mining not only affects Canadian farms in terms of access to clean irrigated water but puts all constituents at a health risk.
Most farmers count on rain and that is varied within Canadian borders with a range from just under 4,400 millimetres in areas of the West Coast to 64 millimetres in the Far North. Regardless of the rainfall, there is a strong need to protect those waters and the plants, such as grasslands which nature has provided that transpire, act as air filters and sequester carbon.
Since the early 1800s the loss of grasslands and wetlands in Canada is a staggering 70 per cent. For wetlands, it started with the trapping of nature’s hydrologist, the beaver, and grew from there. As wetlands are drained we lose our in-house purification systems. With over half the world’s natural chemicals soluble in water, wetlands and watersheds are a pretty critical part of the world we live in today.
There are more than 400 registered pesticides in Canada and water cannot keep up with those changes nor can it, along with the right environment, assist as a filter. Much of the global nitrogen is produced naturally but farming practices have doubled usage. Although Canada is low on the pesticide load per hectare compared to other countries, we rank high on our fertilizer use per hectare.
If you are old enough, you might remember being taught that water goes into the ground and continues on the path down. That, however, is not true as the Earth is in layers or horizons and any contaminated or unfiltered liquid, including water, can hit a shelf or ridge in the soil layer and zip off to a waterway or well — travelling a considerable distance. A setback provision along a stream sounds admirable but does not mitigate the risk below the ground nor does it mitigate risk at all in non-permeable soils unless there are plants in the set-aside to absorb and clean the run-off.
Absorption is critical in our fields and forests and plants act as filters and water reservoirs. Half the weight of a tree is in water and a mature tree will transpire 100 litres per day. A hectare of mature trees will transpire 50 tonnes per day, acting as moist lungs. Any time we remove a tree, we actually remove water. In logged areas, measurable water will decrease by three times compared to the previous measurable amount when it was an intact forest.
Sometimes, as farmers, we curse at water when it comes in unwelcome abundance or a different form.
A soft rain falls at one kilometre per hour (km/h) and is quietly absorbed. But a wide water drop will pick up speed to 12 km/h and hail can cause immeasurable damage when it reaches its top speed of 250 km/h. It is for these times — and they are becoming more frequent — that we need natural spaces in place to capture and hold the overabundance of water.
Everything we do today affects the purity and availability of water for generations ahead. All that is done inland also impacts the sea and our ability to regenerate systems.
We can grow food without sun or even without soil but we have yet to grow food without water.