Textiles, organic agriculture and water use

20 10 2009

A new study focused on global water issues, commissioned by an  international network of  scientists,   found that people around the world view water issues as the planet’s top environmental problem –  greater than air pollution, depletion of natural resources, loss of habitat or climate change. (click here to read more on this study).  That shouldn’t be too surprising, given the alarming statistics we’ve been hearing recently:

From World Water Day:  “The world water crisis is one of the largest public health issues of our time. Nearly 1.1 billion people (roughly 20% of the world’s population) lack access to safe drinking water. Water is essential to the treatment of diseases, something especially critical for children.  This problem isn’t confined to a particular region of the world. A third of the Earth’s population lives in “water stressed” countries and that number is expected to rise dramatically over the next two decades.”

From Water.org:

  • 3.575 million people die each year from water-related disease.
  • The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.
  • An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the typical person living in a developing country slum uses in a whole day

Given that the textile industry uses vast quantities of water – and is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on Earth – it is necessary that the industry at the very least institute water treatment at each and every mill so that the water returned to the ecosystem is safe and doesn’t cause harm.  Currently the industry is adopting voluntary certifications which demonstrate to consumers what they are doing to protect the environment.    Some certifications include standards for water treatment (such as GOTS, C2C, SMaRT) and some do not (such as Oeko-Tex, GreenGuard).  But these certifications are voluntary, and water treatment is expensive.  The market doesn’t yet know enough to demand safe fabrics, let alone better processing procedures.  The industry is not adopting these standards quickly nor is there much discussion about water treatment by American textile mills.  It is not enough.  We are calling for a government mandate for water treatment (pH, temperature and COD and BOD content) at each mill in the United States with standards that really have teeth.

We recognize that industrial water pollution is only part of the problem – that the consumer piece of the equation (laundering) is important also.  But the government cannot mandate how you launder your clothes  –  while it does have the power to change and monitor effluent levels from industry.

We  have a made a Faustian bargain:  we have exploited our natural resources and given up long term conservation for short term gain.  I know it’s easy to point fingers after the fact, and it would have been unusual for anybody (including myself) to point out the folly of using up our limited resources when the gains from doing so were so great.  But time is change, and we’re now facing different circumstances.  It is not really even a question of whether we should do this or not,  because our ability to act has been taken away – the water is simply disappearing.  It’s not being replaced.  We have to adapt to circumstances – and now the only question is “how”?  Let me tell you a story.

There are generally two images of the Great Plains that most Americans of my generation keep in their minds.  The first is that iconic black and white photograph by Arthur Rothstein of the 30’s Dust Bowl:


The second is of a swath of verdant farmland, ripe with wheat, corn, sorghum, soybeans and cotton –   field after verdant field stretching to the horizon:

golden wheat

This startling change can be attributed to the Ogalala Aquifer, one of the largest aquifer systems in the world.  Total water storage in the aquifer is about equal to that of Lake Huron, and it is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water for residential, industrial and agricultural use.   It is this water that transformed the Great Plains from a region of subsistence farming into one of the richest agricultural areas of the world – $20 billion per year in food and fiber depends on this aquifer.   It stretches across all or portions of eight states and underlies 174,000 square miles.  It lies relatively near the land surface in most of this area, and could almost always be counted on to yield water to a well drilled into it.

In the 1930s, people began to realize the potential of the vast water supply that lay beneath them.  Irrigation of cropland began in earnest.   And very little water conservation technology was available:  lots of water was lost to evaporation and deep percolation; open, unlined ditches were used to transport the water to the fields; it wasn’t uncommon to have evaporation losses of 50%. Early settlers thought the water was inexhaustible.

Ogalala a

It was not.  And today we risk having the first image above superimposed again on the second.   That is because  the Ogalala Aquifer is being sucked dry.

Today, the Ogalala Aquifer  is being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic metres a year – amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers.(1)  Although precipitation and river systems are recharging a few parts of the aquifer, in most places “nature cannot keep up with human demands.” (2)

According to a major study just completed by Camp Dresser & McKee, a Boston engineering firm, 5.1 million acres of irrigated land (an area the size of Massachusetts) in six Great Plains states will dry up by the year 2020 ( that’s 10 years!), and millions of acres of irrigated acres will be lost across a 5-state area.  Yet this drastic estimate, declares Herbert Grubb of the Texas department of water resources, is  “20% too optimistic.”(3)

Ship Bright is a blog concerned with fresh water issues, and the post on October 12, 2009 (read it here) features a great description of the current situation, including what they call the “planned bankruptcy”  caused by current water management strategies.

Farmers in the area are waking up to the fact that they will have to use less water – and this in the face of global warming predictions that the area served largely by the Ogalala Aquifer is predicted to be hotter and drier.(4)

One way to conserve water is to use more efficient irrigation systems, another way is to grow crops that require less water.    Then there is “going dryland” – meaning using no irrigation at all.  That requires using some techniques such as leaving stubble in the ground and planting a new crop in the residue.  This not only reduces soil erosion but also decreases evaporation and catches more blowing snow than bare ground.  It also reduces moisture loss by the equivalent of an inch or more of rainfall annually, and in an area that averages only 18 inches of rainfall per year that’s a lot.

These techniques have long been part of organic agriculture  – growing what is appropriate for an area, using what is available.  Many organic crops which do not use artificial fertilizers also have lower water requirements.  There is some research going on into the suitability of cotton as a replacement for corn in this area, because cotton crops use less water than corn.

In addition, some farmers are looking into converting their land back to grasslands, which would provide wildlife habitat, and grazing land for cattle or even buffalo.  (See our blog “Organic Agriculture and Climate Change” 7.29.09 and “Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings”, 8.4.09).   And once a national carbon market is established, farmers could sell credits for storing carbon in grassland soil.  But the government doesn’t provide lucrative financial incentives for grassland conversion as it does for the production of corn or other commodities.

Once again, organic agriculture proves to be important, perhaps crucial, in our fight modify our water use and perhaps allow the Ogalala Aquifer to recharge.

(1)  Little, J.B., “Saving the Ogalala Aquifer”, Scientific American “Earth 3.0”, Vol 19, No. 1, 2009

(2) Ibid.

(3) Stengel, Woodbury, Allis, “Environment: Ebbing of the Ogalala”, Time, May 10, 1982

(4)Bock, J., Bowman, W., Bock, C, “Global Change in the High Plains of North America”, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Great Plains Research, Vol.1, No. 2



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