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Experts stress importance of farmers in water conservation efforts

Modernizing a crumbling 19th-century irrigation system in Colorado and building spawning habitat for salmon downstream from thirsty California farms are among the nature-based projects in the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill designed to help western states cope with drought.

Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of the Interior, highlighted these and other projects during a Wednesday session on agriculture and water as part of World Water Week, an annual event sponsored by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

“Our basic approach to many of our challenges around the western U.S. is letting science guide our decision-making and doing that in a transparent way,” Trujillo told a global audience of researchers, NGO administrators, business leaders and government officials. “The minute we have modeling results and information from our technical teams, we communicate that broadly and inclusively. We want to hear directly from the communities that we’re working with to make sure we’re delivering services and programs that will help them.”

This ground-up message ran through the session, titled “Nature-based Solutions for Sustainable Groundwater: Sharing Benefits in Resilient Foodscapes.”

“Subsidies only go so far and social networks matter,” said Ranu Sinha, an irrigation and drainage specialist at the World Bank, describing how government officials recently tried to get farmers to adopt more efficient irrigation sprinklers in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. “We found social incentives were more likely driving the adoption of this technology than subsidies. They learned about it firsthand from a neighbor, a cousin, a brother and that influenced whether they adopted it or not.”

Truke Smoor, global sustainability director at Cargill, said the company is working to restore 600 billion liters of water in watersheds around the world, as part of its goal of achieving sustainable water management in its operations and throughout its supply chain by 2030. She cited two recent projects: one in Kansas that will restore at least 6,000 acres of wetlands along the Ogallala aquifer; and another in Colorado that will restore habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife in the Platte River aquifer. Wetlands can play a vital role in recharging underground aquifers.

“We were initially mostly focused on carbon outcomes,” she said, “but we’re now integrating water elements into our sustainability programs.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

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