Developing a Water Conscious Culture

May 9, 2011

A story contribution to 2011: The Year of Idaho Food

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” Mark Twain

The beauty of this quotation from Mr. Twain lies in its truth regarding water in the West. For in the East, water is plentiful… and they drink iced tea.

However, west of the 100th meridian, where annual precipitation is less than 20 inches per year on average (and far below that in some places), water is scarce. Which is why the The College of Idaho Environmental Studies Senior Capstone class, taught by Professor Scott Knickerbocker, decided to focus on water in the west for its spring curriculum. Over the past ten weeks the class has aimed to discover the story of water in the West, and in Idaho in particular. Although the story of water in Idaho is complex, involving subjects such as fisheries management, hydropower, and flood control, the most significant aspect of the story is water’s relationship to our food, since agriculture comprises 97% of water use in Idaho.

The Year of Idaho Food would be very different without irrigated agriculture. According to the USDA, over 20% of the total area of Idaho is agricultural land, and 48% of that land is being actively irrigated. That’s 5,518,743 acres of land in the state of Idaho that either pumps water from the aquifer or diverts it from rivers. Without plentiful water, many of the crops we currently farm would not be able to grow in this state.

As we are quickly finding out, water is a finite resource.  And as Mark Twain observed, scarcity increases tensions. Fights over water use go back more than 100 years, and involve lawyers as well as ditch shovels, which according to a personal source were Idaho’s deadliest weapon during the early years of irrigation. The students at The College of Idaho strive to promote the conservation of water for the purpose of protecting Idaho’s most precious resource.

Manipulating our state’s water has given us the ability to create a huge agricultural industry, but it has not come without costs. Free flowing rivers are scarce. Wild rapids and clear water are the exception, not the rule. The salmon, which once swam through the Snake River in the millions, only return now by the thousands. The good news is that we now understand ways to reduce the degradation and waste of Idaho’s water.

The first step toward preventing waste and degradation is to promote water consciousness. Understanding how much water is used to bring food to our plate is one way to begin developing a water conscious culture.

To raise awareness, the Environmental Studies seniors at The College of Idaho will present to the public stories about water from interviews with local farmers and ranchers, in addition to individual research. Afterwards, they are hosting a free barbecue with local and sustainable food and drink.

The presentation starts at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11th in the Morrison Quadrangle on The College of Idaho campus. These students invite you to spend an afternoon supporting local agriculture and learning how you can make a difference in the effort to conserve water.

About Sam Finch:
Sam is a graduating environmental studies major at The College of Idaho. He will be pursing a law degree and masters of environmental science at the University of Idaho this fall.
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One Response to Developing a Water Conscious Culture

  1. Don Mansfield on May 10, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Good job, Sam.


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