At the Agricultural Outlook Forum, prognosticators peer ahead to 2060

Wayne Maloney
Office of Communication, USDA
February 25th, 2015 at 4:30PM

Tom Brown, Economist, Rocky Mountain Research Station's Social and Economic Values Group, Forest Service, USDA, Fort Collins, CO. outlined climate models during his panel presentation at the 2015 Agricultural Outlook Forum. USDA photo by Lance Cheung. No one can say with certainty what the American climate will be like 45 years from now, but looking at climate models discussed at the Agricultural Outlook Forum last week in suburban Washington, D.C., the best prediction is that the American southwest will be drier, the northwest may get more rain and less snow, and the entire nation will see more climate variability.  Weather swings, and their effect on production, will be more pronounced.  Some areas may get too much rain in the winter and spring and not enough in the summer and fall.  That’s a guess, but it’s an educated one.

A few things are fairly certain:  There will be more people, and with a highly diffused American water management system, it will be a challenge to adapt. People will take priority over crops like rice.  Every drop of water will count. It will be necessary for areas accustomed to getting much of their water from melting snowpack to store more water in reservoirs, and water now discarded as “dirty” or “grey” can no longer be flushed away.

The current drought monitor shows a very dry California and the projection is that water demands will continue to increase in Texas and the Southwest, driven by a rising population level and booming resource development activities.  A climate model discussed at the forum shows that by 2060 average rainfall could drop in parts of the southwest by as much as 50 percent, compared to current totals.

Fortunately, there are ways to get more out of each gallon of water and the savings add up quickly.  Dr. Glenda Humiston, State Director for USDA Rural Development in California, told the audience that technology such as sensors on vines and trees, can cut water consumption by 10 percent while increasing yield by the same amount. Nanotechnology and biobased product development along with a credit market can all make contributions to what she called “layered tools” to address water shortages.  Additionally, investing in forest health projects could substantially increase the amount of water available.  Healthy forests are more efficient when it comes to filtering water.

In conclusion, she said partnerships are key to addressing the challenges of a variable climate:  Solutions include more storage and retention of water, better water management and what she termed the “triple bottom line” – People, Planet and Prosperity.