The current water crisis confronting California is a wake-up call for the nation. Unless we heed the urgent call for water conservation, California’s water strife may roll across the country, state by state.

The availability of clean and inexpensive water is a growing concern for the United States and the world. As competition intensifies for clean, fresh water, agriculture must confront the shortage of this once-abundant natural resource so long taken for granted. 

The United States uses about 400 billion gallons of water a day, about half of which goes to energy production, says Michael Hightower, Water for Energy project lead at Sandia National Laboratories. However, much of this water is “borrowed” from lakes, rivers and reservoirs for cooling of electricity-producing turbines, and returned to its source.

Agriculture is the nation’s largest consumer of water. Hightower estimates that more than 80 billion gallons per day are used to irrigate crops. In those areas where water is increasingly scarce, conservation efforts must rise to the challenge.

Crop production in California has increased markedly, while the amount of water used on irrigated farmland has stayed relatively stable, reports the California Farm Bureau Federation. In the two decades between 1980 and 2000, water use and irrigated acreage decreased, yet crop production still rose 35 percent.

Subsurface drip irrigation, soil moisture monitoring, remote controls and satellite imaging are technologies that help farmers raise crops more efficiently. While costly, they allow farmers to be more water-efficient and result in reduced water consumption. Read more on improvements in irrigation.

Livestock operations should all strive to reduce water wastage. Regardless of the operation type, first look for and fix any leaks in facilities, paying close attention to drinkers. “Leaking drinkers are the biggest water wastage problem on hog farms,” says Mike Brumm, Brumm Swine Consultancy, Mankato, Minn. “A drinker leaking at the rate of 90 drips per minute is the equivalent of 7.6 gallons per day.”

While water conservation is crucial to its future stability, agriculture alone cannot make the difference. Until all U.S. industries and residents alike adopt a water conservation mindset, progress will be slow.

Unfortunately, it may take dramatically rising water prices to produce the desired conservation effect. “It’s hard to get people to conserve water because there is this belief that it is overly abundant,” says Nancy Stoner, co-director of water initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense. “But that may soon change.”

Capturing rain water at America’s residences is a place to start. We need to start building homes with dual water systems and rely on captured rain water to flush toilets or water lawns. 

Advances in desalination and water reclamation also are sorely needed. We must develop and grow new water conservation strategies and infrastructure or the crisis facing California agriculture,
and other drought-prone southwestern states, will continue to spread.

While water conservation methods and goals need to be determined by each industry, community and family, one thing is abundantly clear: If we don’t undertake major water conservation projects and develop a conservation mindset, the water crisis will continue to grow.