Fresh water management remains major food issue

Scientists gather for the International Commission of Irrigation and Drainage conference to talk about water

Water experts from around the world are gathered in Saskatoon this week to discuss one of humanity’s most pressing long-term issues: how to manage the planet’s dwindling fresh water supplies more wisely.

“In Canada, our water … is at risk,” said University of Saskatchewan water expert John Pomeroy, who addressed delegates attending the International Conference of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID).

“We have algal blooms in Lake Erie and … in some of the large lakes of the West, like Lake Winnipeg….

“We have had droughts that are unfortunately world-class … and we have retreat of (mountain) glaciers that is unprecedented in recorded human history….

“So, climate change is very real for us and it’s occurring right now.”

The ICID is an international non-governmental organization that shares knowledge and scientific information related to irrigation and drainage.

Established nearly 70 years ago, the organization is comprised of hundreds of water management experts from more than 80 countries around the world.

This week’s conference in Saskatoon includes technical sessions, workshops, keynote presentations, knowledge sharing and tours of irrigation projects across Western Canada.

In the event’s opening plenary session, Pomeroy told delegates that water management will become increasingly important to domestic and international food production efforts as global climate patterns continue to change.

At home, Canada’s agricultural producers are under increasing financial pressure to produce more on a limited land base.

In part, this has been accomplished through the introduction of new plant varieties that use water more efficiently and are more tolerant to climate extremes, said Maurice Moloney, executive director with the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatoon.

However, in many parts of the world, political and consumer opposition to the use of new technologies such as gene editing presents a hurdle to the expansion of agricultural production.

Even in Canada, where acceptance of genetically modified crops is generally more widespread, economic pressures have forced many growers to expand their cultivated acreage through drainage.

Bringing more acres under cultivation through drainage can increase overall production, but it can also create problems downstream in the form of seasonal flooding and nutrient runoff.

Peter McCornick, a water use expert from the University of Nebraska, said increasing demands from urban water users are having an impact on agricultural operation in Nebraska, the most intensively irrigated state in the U.S.

“Agriculture needs more water,” said McCornick.

“But water flows towards money, and it’s agriculture in the end that tends to lose out.”

Nearly 98 percent of the irrigation that takes place in Nebraska uses groundwater resources rather than surface water, McCornick said.

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