The Environmental Defense Fund’s report warns of rising risks to U.S. agriculture due to climate extremes and groundwater over-extraction.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s report warns of rising risks to U.S. agriculture due to climate extremes and groundwater over-extraction, particularly in the Midwest and Western states. The report highlights the need for adaptive strategies to address water-related farming costs.

Rachel O’Connor, senior manager of climate-resilient water systems for the Environmental Defense Fund and a lead author of the report, underscores the gravity of the situation, stating, “Water risks increasingly form the most critical threat to food and fiber production in the U.S.” The report points to the Midwest and Western states as particularly vulnerable regions facing rising costs associated with water-related agricultural practices.

Kelly Suttles, senior research analyst of climate-smart agriculture for the Environmental Defense Fund, emphasizes the necessity for adaptation, noting that U.S. agriculture must adjust to evolving patterns of water scarcity and excess. Suttles highlights promising adaptation strategies, such as transitioning to alternative, economically viable crops and implementing on-farm water recycling, to enhance resilience against both drought and flooding.

The report identifies drought and riverine flooding as significant contributors to the estimated $2 billion in annual losses to the agriculture sector in the West and Midwest. Furthermore, excess water has inflicted $10 billion in damage to the U.S. corn crop from 1989 to 2016. The findings emphasize the economic impact of climate-related challenges on the agricultural industry.

The study delves into region-specific projections, revealing concerning trends:

  • California’s Sierra Nevada Snowpack: Projections indicate a 48% to 65% decline from the historical average by 2100, impacting the state’s extensive agriculture sector.
  • Pacific Northwest’s Yakima Basin: Under a severe warming scenario, the region faces predicted drops in average annual yields of key crops, including potato, alfalfa, and apples.
  • Southwest’s Groundwater Stress: Further reduction in snowmelt is expected to increase reliance on groundwater, intensifying stress on already overtaxed aquifers.
  • Kansas Water Depletion: Predicted declines in both groundwater and surface water due to climate-driven decreases in precipitation, increased groundwater withdrawals, and rising evaporative losses.
  • Midwestern Corn Belt Challenges: Predicted increases in extreme weather, including excessive rainfall and high temperatures, could significantly disrupt crop production.

In response to these threats, the report proposes a multifaceted approach, including:

  • Land and Crop Management Changes: Recommendations include multibenefit land repurposing, transitions to climate-resilient crop mixes, and the development of soil health practices.
  • Technology and Decision-Support Tools: Utilizing platforms like OpenET for field-level, satellite-based evapotranspiration data and the Groundwater Accounting Platform for real-time tracking of water availability and use.
  • Built and Natural Infrastructure Approaches: Emphasizing on-farm water recycling and natural infrastructure for drought and flood resilience.
  • Policy and Funding Mechanisms: Advocating for climate-smart groundwater governance and financing solutions to support climate-smart agriculture investment.

As U.S. agriculture grapples with mounting challenges, the report underscores the critical need for proactive and collaborative measures to safeguard the sector against the impacts of climate change and ensure a sustainable future for food and fiber production.