Water quality issues have been the topic of decades worth of food safety and environmental impact discussions and a key area of focus for Western Growers Science and Technology unit. How do we ensure the quality of the water that we apply in the field? How do we monitor the quality of water used in a facility? How do we manage water on the farm to minimize contaminants in discharge? The list of questions about water quality goes on and on as growers struggle to produce a crop and protect the environment.
These conversations have resulted in changes in on-farm management of water that, in my opinion, need to be re-examined in light of today’s experience, body of knowledge and technologies. For example, several food safety programs discourage or prohibit the reuse of water on a farm. In the past, growers would collect water at the end of a field and then pump it back to the head of a field for re-use in irrigation events. This practice has largely been extinguished because of food safety concerns surrounding the quality of the water that might be re-used and/or the potential for these on-farm water bodies to elevate the risk from animals.
Today, the focus on water quality must be juxtaposed with the condition of water supplies and the competition for water in areas of the country where irrigated agriculture is dominant. The issues of quality and quantity are inextricably linked. Take for example the proposed Food and Drug Administration requirements for water quality embedded in the proposed “Produce Rule.” If the water quality requirements are so stringent as to make it prohibitive to use native surface water supplies, growers may switch to non-renewable supplies such as higher quality groundwater — at least where feasible. This pIaces additional pressure on less renewable supplies, and while it may be an option for some in select areas, the current drought is providing glimpses into the future that suggest tighter controls over how these supplies can be accessed and used. In fact, the drought, coupled with government restrictions on water for agriculture, results in both surface and groundwater being less available to agriculture. The limited supplies are increasingly going to satisfy M&I (Municipality & Industrial) and environmental needs.
All of this makes a compelling case for irrigated agriculture to examine what can be done to assure our long term supplies and continued viability. This includes how we might re-use water on the farm, recycle water within ag basins and facilities, and use reclaimed water in agricultural settings. While some of these practices and waters may be more readily adoptable in non-food or non-fresh commodities, the issue of tightening supplies of high quality water faces the fresh produce industry squarely, and it seems prudent for us to step up and work to control our own destiny. This is not just about conservation — yet it is prudent for agriculture to continue its efforts to produce more with less — it is about alternatives. Alternative sources of water may actually present a number of unique opportunities for irrigated agriculture to better control the quality of water received and to deal with potential contaminants prior to re-use or discharge.
In June, the Center for Produce Safety initiated a discussion on the topic of “safe and sustainable” water for agriculture. In the course of this discussion, we will begin to identify some of the knowledge gaps and barriers associated with recycled, reclaimed, reused water and through that effort prompt research and technology to overcome the knowledge gaps and barriers and capitalize on opportunities.
While there is growing scientific data that supports the safety of recycled water and new regulations and requirements governing the use, the industry needs to have a focused dialogue on the pros and cons associated with these alternative sources. While the impact on human health has been examined in the context of drinking water, the direct application of reclaimed water to fresh agricultural crops is still under study. One strong argument for the use of recycled water is that the water is controlled and can be treated to meet specific specifications — albeit the stringency of these specs will contribute to the costs for these sources. That said, a controlled source of recycled water can help ensure water quality parameters are met, alleviate pressures on finite or scarce supplies, contribute to environmental goals and help to sustain the viability of agricultural systems in the irrigated West.
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