The drought has been devastating to the agricultural industry, with the economic impact strongly felt from coast to coast. It is projected to result in a loss of $1.84 billion and more than 10,000 jobs in California alone, according to a recent study from the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Engineering Sciences.
The lack of natural resources, along with enforced water restrictions on farmers, has forced the agricultural industry to severely cut its production. Food prices have risen nationwide as a result of decreased supply that has failed to meet the usual demand.
California is the largest food-producing domain in the world – including nearly half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables alone – so while the effect of the drought has been felt, the state has been able to carry on. But what about farmers in other areas whose water – and profits – are beginning to run dry?
Water in current systems cheap, but running dry
The primary watering method for farmers to sustain their crops is irrigation – roughly 70 percent of the world’s freshwater withdrawals are used in this way. Unlike residential or industrial usage, where 90 percent is reusable, only approximately half of the water used for irrigation can be repurposed.
Currently, water for purchase for agricultural use is not terribly expensive, even as prices have risen dramatically during the last several years of drought conditions. A report from July of 2014 stated farmers in California’s Central Valley were paying 10 times as much for water than they did the year prior – roughly $1,100 per acre-foot (about 326,000 gallons).
While this still equates to paying fractions of pennies per gallon, the increase is cutting into profits. When expenses such as trucking fees to deliver the water – residents are paying up to $500 for 2,500 gallons of water delivered – and storage costs to keep the water on-site in tanks are taken into account, the overall cost of water for farmers can rise quickly.
Innovation in water technology grows in agriculture
The drought in California has provided significant opportunities for various water technologies to step forward and provide tangible solutions that can help people and provide relief. One such technology is atmospheric water generation, a process through which water is produced from the humidity in the air. The water produced is clean and consumable, with successful applications for residential and commercial use, including fracking and agriculture.
Commercialized atmospheric water generation systems on the market can produce thousands of gallons of water per day. The water is produced, filtered and stored on-site directly inside the machine, eliminating the need for expensive trucking and storage costs. These machines can be configured to tie in directly to irrigation systems, allowing farmers to use existing infrastructure instead of creating overhead costs for new piping.
Costs of the water per gallon will be a bit higher than when buying in bulk – some companies charge roughly $0.10/gallon for the energy usage and filter replacement, or $0.16/per gallon when including the cost of the machine, fully amortized over 20 years. But with that higher cost comes freedom from the grip of the environmental conditions that have wreaked havoc on the industry for nearly five years.
Atmospheric water generation technology is not limited to traditional agricultural and irrigation methods. Farming trends, such as vertical farming, are ideal fits for this growing method because of their ability to provide water to a large number of crops within a small space.
Vertical farming structures are traditionally found within urban settings or geographic areas unideal for agriculture. These structures have built-in irrigation systems which can connect directly to an atmospheric water generation system for crop irrigation. Due to the humid conditions inside the structure, the water can be recycled through the plants and back into the atmosphere, creating a sustainable water cycle that maintains itself.
The technology also regulates the temperature and humidity levels of the growing environment, which is crucial for producing maximum yield of the crops and ensuring water production stays at an optimal level. This system is also extremely efficient, using up to 98 percent less water per item of produce than traditional farming.
No matter what type of agricultural system, water is always going to be a premium resource on which farmers depend. It is highly unlikely that technology will ever be able to replace natural resources as the primary water source, but innovative technologies like atmospheric water generation are ready to be implemented to provide immediate relief as a complementary resource.
Farmers can get water from the air rather than fighting (often unsuccessfully) over limited amounts of water in the ground.
Keith White is the founder and CEO of Ambient Water, an atmospheric water generation technology company providing solutions that produce water from the humidity in the air. Its flagship systems include the Ambient Water 400, which is capable of producing up to 400 gallons of clean water per day. White can be reached at Keith@ambientwater.com.