Innovations in Conservation

I wrote a few weeks ago about cloud computing and its promise to reduce energy consumption in data centers. That research got me thinking about other natural resources, and our quest to conserve and use those resources more efficiently. Take water, for instance, one of our most critical natural resources. Farming is the largest single consumer of water nationwide. I grew up on a farm and have been amazed to see how technically sophisticated every element of farming, including irrigation, has become. Technology innovations have radically reshaped the farm industry. Nowadays, farmers use GPS to create straight furrows and to tell them where to apply fertilizer. They harvest crops using highly mechanized methods that do the same work in a fraction of the time. And nowhere has there been more innovation that in the use of groundwater for irrigation.

For example, the state of the art 30 years ago was to flood the space between rows of crops, where most of the water was wasted due to evaporation. Later came sprinkler systems, coupled in 20-foot long sections of aluminum pipe along the ground, each with a sprinkler on the end. This method required unhooking each section, lifting and draining the water, moving it over 30 or so feet, and reattaching the sections before restarting the irrigation. This method was more efficient in conserving water but very labor intensive, to which I can personally attest!

If you have ever flown over farms in the Midwest you have no doubt seen green circles on the ground below, reflecting the modern circular pivot irrigation systems. Farmers today frequently grow their crops in circles and station a rolling sprinkler system in the center, which sweeps around the field like a minute hand on a watch. This method is even more efficient, because the sprinklers are just above the top of the plants and very little water flies through the air to be lost to evaporation. Each of these developments has meant that each bale of cotton or wheat is sent to market more efficiently than the one before, with less water required to produce it. And the innovation has not halted; many farmers today are installing tubes below the ground to run water directly to the crops’ root systems, reducing irrigation requirements even further.

Of course, like electricity, we may be conserving more at an individual level but overall consumption has not declined. The need for further innovation to get ahead of our consumption patterns is great. However, based on trends of the past few decades, it seems we can expect the innovation to continue in ways that we cannot predict today.