By Travis Mounts, managing editor
Earth Day is Friday, and this annual event has me thinking into the future.
Right now, I’m thinking far into the future and thinking about any possible grandchildren I may have. I’m thinking about their children, who I likely would not meet until I’m past my 80th birthday. I’m thinking about the children of my little nieces and nephews, preteens who won’t have thoughts about their own children for a couple of decades.
I worry about the problems they’re going to be dealing with – the problems that we’re not doing nearly enough about.
When I was in California last June, our trip included a couple of drives across the Central Valley. It was interesting to see a variety of agriculture in that long, skinny strip of land.
The Central Vally is only about 40-60 miles wide, but runs more than 450 miles roughly north to south, from near the Oregon border all the way to Bakersfield, which is a relatively easy drive from Los Angeles. It is California’s main agricultural area, and one of the most productive agriculture regions on the entire planet. It covers 60,000 square miles.
And it is vitally important to the entire United States. More than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the U.S. come from this region. The weather is good nearly year round, and there is plenty of sunshine. That means shorter growing seasons, which in turn means more crops can be grown there.
We think of Kansas and the Great Plains as an important ag area, and we are. Our contributions, primarily in wheat and corn, make us a global player despite our relatively sparse population.
But California as a whole and the Central Valley specifically is the most critical growing area in our country.
And much of it is done with virtually no rainfall. Three primary drainage systems feed more than 7 million acres through canals, streams, sloughs and more.
California and much of the West is experiencing record drought. Cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, which have had explosive growth the past 25 years, are worried they won’t have drinking water. Across the Central Valley, wells are dry and aquifers are critically low. Rivers and reservoirs are running out of water.
December brought lots of snowfall to the Sierra Nevada range, but there has been precious little moisture since then. Warming temperatures mean the snow pack is melting faster. The 20-year stretch from 2000 to 2021 was the driest period in the West in 1,200 years, according to a recent study reported by CNN.
Unless something drastic happens, hard choices will have to be made between the agriculture that feeds the country, and millions of people who live out West.
This will impact all of us. The problem won’t just mean exponentially higher food prices. What we’re seeing now is just a hint of what could happen.
Foods like lettuce and strawberries might be reduced to seasonal, locally-grown only options. With all the supply chain issues we have seen during the past year of the pandemic, I’m not sure we can count on tomatoes from Mexico or grapes from Chili or any of the other foods we have become accustomed to.
In addition, what’s happening in California is eerily similar to the concerns about water resources in western Kansas. We’re draining the shallow Ogallala Aquifer in an unsustainable manner to grow crops that previously were completely unsuitable for agriculture. Western Kansas and the California Central Valley are similar in that they don’t receive enough water to grow crops. They are not suitable for farming. Through technology, we made them that way during the 20th Century.
Changes are needed, and they will seem drastic. However, the changes we could choose to make now will be far less drastic than the ones we’ll likely have no choice but to make 50 to 100 years from now.
The solutions won’t be easy, and the consequences of our actions or inaction now will be primarily felt by future generations. I think future generations are likely to judge us harshly for the problems we give them.