Groundwater, Bioenergy and Soil Health – Is the Nexus Sustainable?
USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS), National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment
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Human demand for food, feed, fiber, and fuel resources will continue to increase as our global population climbs steadily towards 9.5 billion or more. Our objective for this presentation is to review potential biofuel production impacts on U.S. groundwater availability and quality by examining interactions affecting the groundwater – bioenergy – soil health nexus. Currently, irrigation supports 40% of global food production, but it occupies only about 18% of the agricultural landscape. Groundwater resources, being used for critical, irrigated food production in several regions of the world, are being depleted because their recharge rates are well below extraction rates. Therefore, without significant improvements in irrigated water management, the life expectancy for many irrigation aquifers, including several in the United States, is projected to be decades or even less. Soil degradation is an equally important problem caused by many factors that can only be addressed by adopting sustainable agricultural and land management practices. Soil and water resources are intimately linked. Addressing the nexus is the only way to ensure solutions for one problem do not induce unintended consequences for the other. Furthermore, to ensure consensus, acceptance, and implementation, it will be essential to embrace multi-Agency/institution, non-government organization (NGO), and private-sector inputs and perspectives using integrated systems approaches. The water analysis tool for energy resources (WATER) developed by Department of Energy (DOE) engineers, land use and cropping systems changes as well as enhanced irrigation water management strategies being developed by ARS scientists and engineers, and policy changes being recommended by several university Water Resource Institutes will be discussed. Our hypothesis is that all of these tools and many more will be needed to address this wicked problem, and thus ensure our fragile, groundwater, energy, and soil health requirements are met within a truly sustainable nexus.