In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, readers were first introduced to the line “Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

For growers near the Great Lakes who irrigate their crops, that rhyming couplet could’ve been penned by their plants this past season.

Looking at current trends and considerations for the Great Lakes (and beyond) as far as water policy goes is researcher Molly Sears, assistant professor at Michigan State University. She noted that 42% of freshwater withdrawals in the U.S. are for irrigated agriculture, and that 54% of American crops sales come from irrigated acreage. However, out of 84,000 monitoring wells nationwide, four in 10 have hit record lows since 2013.

That second statistic is concerning because even though agriculture is using water much more effectively these days, regional differences are evolving.

“There was a net decline in the West between 1997 and 2017, but there’s been a big increase east of the Mississippi River in the acreage irrigated,” Sears said.

That’s where water policy comes into play. Just because a body of water exists doesn’t mean it’s available for everyone to use.

With riparian water rights, “the landowner has rights to the body of water that touches the borders of their property,” Sears explained. “They may use the water for domestic needs as long as it doesn’t obstruct the natural flow of water for other riparian owners.”

Riparian rights are subject to severance, though – if a landowner subdivides, land that formerly abutted the water no longer has rights to it. Most Eastern states have riparian rights.

“Historically, there has been enough water in the Eastern U.S. – but it’s becoming more of a challenge,” Sears added. “We want to make sure everyone has equal access to water.”

Some of her research has found that changes in annual precipitation in the Great Lakes region are expected to increase by mid-century – but it won’t be in the form of increased summer precipitation, which means more irrigation by growers will be likely.

Branching westward, Sears looked at the Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala River in eastern Nebraska has seen a big increase in use for irrigation across the region it runs through. “One of the most difficult challenges in ensuring stable future water resources is the mismatch in scale between the level of management and the scale of the problem,” Sears said. “The Ogallala Aquifer lies underneath eight states, all of which have different reporting, prices and/or water use requirements. For states with more stringent standards, this is a pain point – users ask ‘Why should I conserve if others will use the water immediately?’”

Image courtesy of Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources

Looking east, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is already tackling a similar issue. The compact puts a ban on new diversions of water from the basin (with some limited exceptions). It also establishes consistent standards in review of water use; undergoes reviews every five years; and each state/province included will implement a water conservation and efficiency program that may be voluntary – or mandatory.

Learn more about the compact at glslcompactcouncil.org.

“What do we expect to see in the future?” Sears asked. “More irrigation. The expansion of specialty crops. More volatile rainy seasons (including more drought and more rainfall, which likely means more pests). Possibly more legal issues.”

With those concerns in mind, growers need to plan further ahead than the next season when it comes to irrigation issues – and work with many other entities to ensure all their plants have drops to drink.

by Courtney Llewellyn