Food & Drink » Food: Year of Idaho Food

The Effects of Agriculture on Idaho's Water Usage

Students at C of I study Idaho's massive water footprint


The mood was sunny on a spring afternoon as a small crowd collected for a student presentation on the lawn of the College of Idaho campus in Caldwell. It was warm, there was a barbecue afterward and graduation was only days away. Yet one of the photographs the eight student presenters had set on easels next to a row of colorful graphs and pie charts seemed out of place. It was an oversized black-and-white portrait of a long-bearded and thoroughly grumpy-looking old man. He stared down on the proceedings like a disapproving grandfather. He was also essential to the students' program.

"Our story of water in the West starts with a man by the name of John Wesley Powell in the year 1869," said environmental studies student Sam Finch after he stepped to the microphone and began a senior class presentation on the often unseen consequences of food production on the West's water supply.

This capstone presentation on water and agriculture was one of a series of food-centric programs the College of Idaho is offering as a participant in 2011: The Year of Idaho Food. The college has taught several other courses focusing on the subject of food, brought in guest speakers to talk about food and has two "sustainability stewards" who maintain an organic garden that provides food to the school. They work closely with Bon Appetit, the college's food service provider, which is well known for sourcing a high percentage of its ingredients from local farmers and ranchers. In addition, the college has chosen a food-related book as its freshman read for next fall, Wendell Berry's Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food.

Back in the 1860s, Powell probably looked as perturbed as he did in that black and white portrait. A one-armed American explorer famous for raining on the nation's parade of development plans for the arid West, Powell warned of the region's severe lack of water. He cautioned against the kind of development that suited the rain-rich eastern United States and northern European countries that many of America's western immigrants had recently fled. Powell predicted that even after building countless dams and labyrinthine canal systems, only a small percentage of the West would ever be suitable for agriculture. He predicted the attempt alone would come at great economic and environmental costs.

"Despite his best efforts," Finch continued, "Powell's insight was disregarded."

The western water situation doesn't appear to have changed much since Powell's day. Finch and his seven fellow environmental studies students spent 10 weeks immersed in the subject of western water, focusing on agriculture and interviewing farmers, ranchers and winemakers throughout the Treasure Valley. They read books like Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner and The Snake River: Window to the West by Tim Palmer and others. What they learned stunned them.

"With a lot of the reading that we did and the people that we talked to, we really began to understand the water footprint that each individual person had on a daily basis," said fellow student presenter Camrin Braun.

The class learned that in Idaho, our water footprint is massive. According to recent statistics collected by Dr. Robert Mahler at the University of Idaho, the state ranks No. 1 in the nation for per capita water usage. Mahler cautioned that our ranking is so high because we are a relatively small population irrigating a very large amount of agricultural land.

Nevertheless, he said, Idahoans use 13,000 gallons of water per person per day--it was once as high as 22,000 gallons. Wyoming's residents, at No. 2, use 1,000 gallons. Rhode Island uses a diminutive 150. More than 85 percent of that Idaho water is poured on farmers' fields (another 7 to 9 percent is used to farm fish). Factor in that much of that farmland sits in a desert, which receives less than 10 inches of rainfall per year.

"Some of the numbers are very sobering and I think definitely got us on board sort of being water conscious and trying to spread the word," said Braun.

As early as 1905, Idaho's small population was already drawing enough water from the Snake River to dry a 10-mile stretch of the river near Blackfoot. Today dams continue to dramatically squeeze the state's rivers during the height of the growing season, the most obvious result being the reduction or elimination of Idaho's native-salmon runs.

Most of us don't see the various impacts of agriculture on water quantity and quality on the environment and recreation. Finch said having a campus located in farm country helped make him and his fellow students more sensitive to the issue.

"Maybe it's because we're in the middle of Caldwell, which is a more agricultural community than a lot of other college campuses in the West," Finch said. "And maybe it's because of that that we see the link between water and food. When we drive down to the Snake River, 15 minutes away, we see that it's a working river and not a pristine mountain river. We see the canals that run all around the city. Walk a mile in any direction, you'll hit a canal. The connections between water and agriculture are everywhere. You just have to kind of be knowing what to look for."

The average consumer may not know what to look for, but Finch said the farmers and ranchers his environmental studies class interviewed were only too aware they were growing food in a desert.

"They understand that water conservation is an important issue," he said. "They would all be in favor of conserving water would it be financially feasible. If farmers could afford to save water, I'm sure they would, but I think the cost that they have to incur, both financially and just their time conserving water, makes that pretty difficult."

One third of Idaho's farm fields are flood irrigated, compared to more efficient watering methods like sprinkling or drip. Flood irrigation is cheaper. The fact that many farmers can't afford the electricity and equipment that would help them save water is one of many ironies Finch and his fellow environmental studies students found shadowing their research.

"Every week we'd be talking about something," Finch said. "And there would just be this looming irony over the whole discussion about how much water we're wasting."

The contradictory nature of water politics wasn't lost on him either.

"Idaho, being a conservative state, has probably one of the most socialized public works projects as far as water irrigation in the country goes. There's just irony in every corner," Finch said.

But the students also found hope. Consumers, they learned, have more influence than they might think. They can vote for water conservation with their forks.

"You know, the consumer really has a lot of power that we may not realize," said Braun in his conclusion of the students' presentation.

"By understanding where our food comes from and what effect its production has on the landscape, we can take advantage of the power of consumption to help shrink our own water footprint and inform those exhibiting wasteful practices that they should do the same."

Although John Wesley Powell's black and white portrait was still scowling at the end of the program, he would have likely been cheered by the sight of a new generation, some 142 years later, still willing to tackle his favorite subject: water in the West.