2014 Seeley Summit: Thinking Differently About Water

After a two-year hiatus, the Seeley Summit (formerly Seeley Conference) returned this year after re-branding and moving from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., to Chicago Il.

The theme of this year’s Seeley Summit was “Water: Horticulture’s Next Game Changer.” The summit provided an opportunity for industry members to learn and develop strategies to tackle the issue of water scarcity.

Speakers at the event challenged industry professionals to think differently about water. Globally, water demand is predicted to outstrip availability by 40 percent in 2030. Changes in distribution, use patterns and price will make conventional use of water unsustainable in the long run.

Implications For Society And Agriculture

Shortages of water have occurred throughout history, but what has changed is consumer attitude. Water has been seen as a commodity that can be taken for granted — but that can no longer be the case. The real challenge is how to manage this change.

Currently, 70 percent of water is used by farmers, and global water usage grew at twice the population rate over the last 100 years. Going forward, growers will be faced with doing more with less as population and demand continue to increase.

Water is thought of as an inalienable right, but drought will only become more common in the U.S., and two-thirds of the world’s population could experience a water shortage by 2030. To keep up, the rules will have to change. Growers won’t be able to accept that it takes 100 lbs. of water to grow 1 lb. of a crop, because the resources are just not there.

Today’s consumers have a desire to conserve. Small is becoming the new big as home and car sizes shrink. Among the millennial generation, there is a demand for more transparency from business operations.

A grower’s prominence in the market will be determined by what he knows. Growers should be prepared in the next five years to know their water footprint and have that information ready for consumers.

Water Scarcity In The U.S.

Featured speakers at the Seeley Summit came from Texas, Florida, Colorado and California to offer their perspectives on how water scarcity affects their regions.

As of 2012, just 4 percent of Texans identified water supply as the state’s most important problem; however, Texas is currently in the seventh year of a very serious drought. The worst inflow year in history was 2011, and the first four months of 2014 were worse than 2011.

As the state’s population grows, there is an increasing competition between rural and urban demand for water. The state uses 270 billion gallons per week, and while agriculture use is the largest use of water, urban use is the second largest. The Colorado River already has a long history of legal action surrounding it, and state and federal dollars have been spent to control and divert waters to agricultural and urban areas.

One solution has been to implement water use restrictions. Thirty-one percent of the residential water use is in the landscape. That percentage goes up to 60 percent in the summer. The state’s response has been to restrict use to a certain day of the week. Some cities, like Austin, have implemented permanent regulations.

In California, there is more water available in the north, but much of the state’s population is in the southern half. That, plus a lack of reservoir capacity, means that drought is a year-to-year issue for the state. One of the speakers, from Paramount Farms, the state’s largest agricultural water-user, presented the company’s experience addressing water scarcity by attempting to secure long-term water availability.

Surface water projects like the State Water Project and Center Valley Project were expected to yield 4.2 million acre-feet of water per year and 2.1 million acre-feet per year, respectively; however, the projects were never completed. Yields have dropped because of political decisions that have reallocated water for environmental use instead.

Part of the reason for reduced exports has been the health of the Delta, in particular certain native fish species. Water was reallocated without any compensation to water contract holders.

California is currently estimated to have an annual overdraft of groundwater of 2.2 million acre-feet. This is due to reduced surface water availability, increased agricultural economy and increased urbanization. This could result in mandatory sustainable groundwater levels within 10 to 20 years, which will lead to a reduction in irrigated acreage in the state.

Florida instituted water management districts in 1961, which had authority over all water in the state. The districts could grant the right to use water if it was reasonable, beneficial and in the public interest.

In the meantime, the state has experienced huge growth, particularly along the coasts. Development in those areas has created problems for the state, due to a lack of water access. The solution has been to restrict water use and educate the public about wasteful use. Water shortages date back to 1973, with the first written water plan in 1984. When the first written plan went into effect, some of the water restrictions were arbitrary and not based on science. Those restrictions had a profound impact from the beginning. Residents stopped planting and retail sales declined 50 percent.

Now, restrictions are science-based, and monitored by local government. Members of the industry in Florida have stayed engaged in a number of ways, such as by establishing relationships with policymakers, helping to write water restrictions, identifying gaps in research, following university-endorsed science and providing funding opportunities.

Managing Change

Since the 1950s, consumers have used plants for fashion versus function. The growth of the middle class led to the development of suburbs, where individuals found a new use for plants: décor. Baby Boomers have grown up in the current marketplace, and have always seen plants as fashion.

In recent years, a return to urban areas, and the implementation of green roofs, rain gardens, branded flowers and plants and outdoor living spaces has led to a need for the integration of fashion and function. Those in the industry can help consumers by formulizing plant selection and purchasing. Some ways to do that include:

  • Clearly identify the functions and requirements of a plant
  • Identify the unit size, as well as the necessary inputs and add-ons
  • Merchandise plants for dimensions of space or purpose

One of the speakers, a large grower in Colorado, discussed his state’s response to a severe drought in 2002. The state had previously had water use restrictions in place since 1977, which allowed residents to water every third day. That policy continued until two years before the next drought hit in 2002. At that point, there was growing concern about water availability in the future, and gardening among consumers was starting to become seen as politically incorrect.

To get ahead of this, multiple industry organizations came together to come up with best management practices and develop a message for the public. It was an opportunity to establish Xeriscape principles, which were:

  • Plan and design practical turf areas
  • Use appropriate plants and zone by watering needs
  • Improve the soil when appropriate, and consider using mulch
  • Irrigate efficiently
  • Maintain the landscape properly.

To support the concept of zoning by watering needs, the X-rated program was implemented. Plants rated X need one inch of water per week, XX need 1/2-inch per week and XXX needed 1/2-inch every other week. The program was promoted by independent garden centers, and served a tool to educate the public.

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