In a drought, even irrigation isn't a savior

Corn plants growing beyond the limits of the farmer’s irrigation system dry in the field July 28, 2011 near Canadian, Texas.

Kai Ryssdal: The story of the day is one most of the Midwest has been dealing with for a couple of months now: The worst drought they've had in decades.

But here's the thing with water. There's not much farmers can do to get more of it, because drought's one problem you just can't buy your way out of.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: There are two types of farmers in the Midwest. The first, called dry land farmers, are actually in the wetter places. They rely on rich soil, and rainfall. When the ground's dry, and it doesn't rain, what's their backup?

Darin Newsom: Well, there really isn't one.

Darin Newsom is an agriculture analyst with DNT in Iowa. He says for those farmers:

Newsom: It's over. There's just no chance that the crop's going to be salvageable.

Watering from above won't cut it. And there's no underground irrigation in place. Now, other farmers in drier parts of the corn belt have had elaborate irrigation and pumping systems for decades.

Newsom: Where you actually have to pull the water out of some source.

Like a creek, or aquifer. Those water supplies are managed by state or local government. Farmers hooked up to irrigation can get more water, technically.

George Rafetlis: But the amount that is allowed to the agricultural section might be limited.

George Raftelis is a water price consultant. He says drought stricken states face tough choices, as their water supply shrinks.

Raftelis: Where you going to place the greatest burden? Is it going to be your residential customers, your industrial customers, your agricultural customers? Or who?

Some governments have laws or policies for who gets priority. When creeks dip below a certain level in Kansas -- as they have -- farmers can't run their pumps. Raftelis says many Midwest communities don't have plans for how to prioritize water during droughts, but they're drawing them up as fast as they can.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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