Drought and the Food, Water and Energy Nexus

Map of drought in the contiguous U.S. as of July 17, 2012 based on the U. S. Drough Monitor.

What a difference a year makes. Last spring, farmers along the Mississippi River watched in horror as the Army Corps of Engineers blew up levees to let floodwaters run into their fields in order to protect downriver cities (check out this NASA video of before and after LANDSAT photos). This year, farmers around the country are watching helplessly as drought causes widespread crop damage. In some places along the Mississippi River, water levels are 50 feet below last year’s near record high levels. Unfortunately for a country already struggling with a slow economy, damage caused by this drought is going to be expensive and could affect many parts of our lives. Our food, water and energy systems are so intertwined that a crisis affecting any one of those resources can throw the others seriously out of balance.

As of June 2012, more than half of the country was in various stages of drought (according to information from the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor Report) and more than one-third of the nation’s counties had been declared federal disaster areas. In July, we didn’t get much relief so that number is rising. If you're an Ecocentric reader then you've heard of the food, water and energy nexus, We're experiencing the nexus first-hand because the worst drought since 1956 will likely produce significant impacts on food and fuel prices, and could cause urban water supplies in some regions of the country to dry up. The consequences could be staggering.

In this time of limited corn supplies, livestock producers aren’t happy with the mandates or with having to compete for corn for their feed. The EPA could decide to lower the amount of ethanol required in gasoline, but that probably won’t happen until next year.

Here’s how that’s happening with the 2012 drought, and some tips to consider so you can minimize the impacts of these higher prices on your budget.

The obvious impact is damage to crops, especially to corn and soy. With no rain falling, crops are failing in places where crops are not irrigated or where irrigation water is in short supply. Corn is especially problematic because it’s in practically everything we eat (we even put it into our gas tanks). Check out the labels on those boxed, canned and bottled products you might be buying at the grocery store. The chances are they're made with corn or soy. Also, if you eat beef, poultry, pork or even farmed fish, those animals were probably given feed made up of corn or soy. Dairy products and eggs? Same thing. Prices will likely be rising on meat and dairy products over the next few months, and certainly by next year. Processed foods and cereals are less likely to see the massive price spikes because those foods are generally cheaper to produce (at least they seem cheaper on the surface) but are generally much less nutritious than whole foods.

This would be a good time to:

  • Start cutting back on how much meat you eat (consider trying a Meatless Monday option) or switching to food that comes from animals raised under more sustainable conditions.
  • Consider using meat and dairy products as accents rather than the main ingredients in your diet. Try changing to a diet based on fresh and whole (meaning less processed) foods like fruits and vegetables, the price of which aren’t expected to be as significantly impacted by the drought because they are generally irrigated and the water is highly regulated.
  • Investigate locally produced food options you can buy via farmers' markets and community supported agriculture.

Diminishing corn supplies could also affect gasoline prices . There are mandates in place for the amount of ethanol that has to be included in gasoline, and American ethanol is made primarily from—you guessed it—corn. In fact, 40 percent of last year’s corn crop went toward making ethanol. In this time of limited corn supplies, livestock producers aren’t happy with the mandates or with having to compete for corn for their feed. The EPA could decide to lower the amount of ethanol required in gasoline, but that probably won’t happen until next year.

This would be a good time to:

  • Find other forms of transportation that don’t involve putting gas in your car like walking and biking, taking the bus or train or even telecommuting. Even using less gas by carpooling and not letting your engine idle will help you save some money as fuel prices rise.

Electric power production can also be impacted when water supplies run low. Many power plants (those that use thermoelectric processes, anyway) rely on water for cooling purposes. This is why many power plants are located next to water bodies. As the drought continues, water levels in rivers and lakes will drop, impacting power production in two ways. First, there is simply not as much water available to use for cooling the steam produced from the plants' processes. Also, once the steam has been cooled, the water used to cool it has been heated up and it’s usually put back into the water body it was initially taken out of. As water levels in rivers and lakes drop, the water can warm up. If the water temperature gets high enough, state regulations may prohibit plant operators from discharging cooling water into the water body in order to protect fish and other aquatic life. Or, the water temperature in the water body itself could get too warm for the plant to use at all; as a result, the plant may have to cease operation. Oftentimes this means that power plants have to stop producing electricity, disrupting the stability of the electrical grid.

This might be a good time to:

  • Consider switching to renewable power technologies that use very little water in their production processes.

Finally, the most obvious impact of the drought is that surface and groundwater supplies aren’t being replenished as they get used up for residential and other municipal purposes. Residential water use can double, triple or even quadruple in the summertime because of lawn watering, further straining water supplies. If the drought continues, some communities will find themselves making tough decisions about water allocation, including restrictions on residential watering and even prohibitions on agricultural irrigation.

This would be a good time to:

By now, it should be clear how food, water and energy systems rely on and impact each other. Our infrastructure is connected and, while it seems resilient, it often takes very little to put things out of balance. Changing how we eat and use water and energy, when done collectively, can make a big difference in the availability and, ultimately the sustainability of the natural resources we rely on throughout our lives.