Supporting a Water-Friendly Florida Agriculture
by Robert E. Ulanowicz, Ph.D.
Most are aware of Florida’s growing water crisis, but few seem eager to consider the elephant in the parlor. Water expert Thomas Swihart reports that agricultural irrigation accounts for more than 60 percent of all freshwater consumed in Florida ([i]), although the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services reported in 2011 that the agricultural sector comprised approximately 1 percent of the state’s total domestic product ([ii]). Despite this surprising disparity, agriculture’s contributions to Florida’s water problems are only infrequently discussed, because “Everyone has to eat!”
Of course, food is necessary for survival, but it is also true that, “Everyone needs to drink!” In fact, the physiological need for water is far stronger than for food. The rule of thumb is that humans can survive three weeks without food, but only three days without water. We rightly focus on widespread starvation in our world, but we also need to recognize the growing global shortage of freshwater for humanity. Pope Francis in his recent Encyclical was moved by growing scarcity to proclaim that, “[W]ater is a scarce and indispensable resource and a fundamental right… This indisputable fact overrides any other assessment of environmental impact on a region.” ([iii])
The priority of water is also very apparent in North Florida. While food can be readily transported over road and rail, water is heavy and expensive to move. Besides, there are no neighboring sources of freshwater that could be brought into our region – witness the current “water wars” among Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Available water must come from within our region, and it exists overwhelmingly in the form of groundwater. The Floridan aquifer meets the EPA definition of a “sole source aquifer.” ([iv]) There is no real alternative.
Florida currently is home to 22 million people. To feed that many from local agriculture is unrealistic. Florida history reveals how our colonial forebears were always on the brink of starvation because of the very poor soils of our region. Production can be forced from our soils only by the application of copious amounts of water and fertilizer. Any irrigation that returns to the aquifer carries with it polluting nitrogen, and growing extraction is beginning to draw saltwater inland and from below. Agricultural over-production would leave the region sitting atop a brackish cesspool.
Unfortunately, technology offers no easy solution. Techniques for more efficient irrigation are certainly welcome and necessary, but the gains from such Best Management Practices (BMPs) inevitably will be swamped by the demands of Florida’s burgeoning population. Furthermore, the cost of desalinization is both energetically and financially daunting. A thriving industrial sector cannot be built upon desalinated water. Nor, for that matter, can desalted water sustain a significant agriculture. The very survival of our region depends in so many ways upon preserving a sustainable source of fresh, clean groundwater.
The priority of water should in no way, however, obscure the necessity of agriculture for our area. Numerous counties in North Florida draw most of their employment and lifeblood from agriculture. Buying local produce saves significant energy and returns capital to local farmers. The persistence of vital farms is necessary for the preservation of open space that otherwise might be developed, thereby making even heavier demands upon the aquifer.
Furthermore, there is a legacy of farming that coexisted with, for example, the abundant flow of clean water from our springs. But agriculture has changed, especially in scale and proportion. Until recent decades, most farms were locally owned and they recycled nutrients from nearby organic sources – somewhat akin to the Jeffersonian ideal of the family farm that most want to preserve. Today, however, Florida agriculture is more typified by large corporate holdings. The 349 largest irrigated farms account for 64 percent of all the irrigated acreage. ([v]) These operations import artificially captured nitrogen and many export profits from the state.
How, then, to achieve a viable agriculture overlying a sustainable aquifer? As an initial measure, BMPs should be strengthened and made mandatory, not voluntary. Incentives should be provided for farms to switch to less water-consumptive crops, like longleaf pine or sesame seed. Requests for additional large-scale withdrawals should be rigorously scrutinized and most simply denied. Water takes priority! Consumers should support local produce grown by resident farmers using BMPs.
Most importantly, there must be an end to the free lunch. Agricultural interests pay essentially nothing for the precious water they extract. Tiered charges for water withdrawals must be collected from all users – domestic, agricultural and industrial, in order to foster conservation and efficiency. Jacksonville industrialist Preston Haskell understands how the continued survival of Florida industry and jobs calls for this form of economic control. ([vi]) How long must it be before agriculturalists realize that their own survival requires the same remedy?
A version of this article appeared in The Gainesville Sun’s print edition on Sunday, December 13, 2015:
Ulanowicz is Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Courtesy Professor, University of Florida Department of Biology. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Ichetucknee Alliance and a resident of Gainesville.
([ii]) The Statistics Portal reported the 2011 FL GDP as Ca. 719 Billion <http://www.statista.com/statistics/187850/gdp-of-the-us-federal-state-of-florida-since-1997/>, while FDACS gives the 2011 Ag production in FL as $8.26 Billion. <http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Marketing-and-Development/Education/For-Researchers/Florida-Agriculture-Overview-and-Statistics>.
([iii]) Bergoglio, J. 2015. Laudato Si': On Care for our Common Home. Encyclical of Pope Francis. Paragraph 185. <http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html>