Food, Rivers, and Energy: Why Gardens have a Carbon Footprint

August 1, 2011

A Story contribution to 2011: The Year of Idaho Food

Photo of the lower Boise River by Kevin Lewis

Tremendous potential exists to make Treasure Valley communities and rivers more resilient to climate change by gardening with greater water efficiency.

According to Liz Paul, Idaho Rivers United Boise River Campaign Coordinator, local food production is a river-dependent process. “It doesn’t rain enough here to grow much food without irrigation. Gardening and farming requires withdrawals from the Boise River or its companion aquifer,” she said. “Those withdrawals stress our river ecosystems, affecting fish, wildlife, and water quality. Climate change is putting additional stress on the Boise River, heating the air and water, increasing the frequency of fires and landslides, and reducing summer flows.”

Fortunately for Idaho’s rivers, gardeners, and communities, there are simple ways to reduce the stress on the Boise River from irrigation withdrawals and climate change.  Because of the hard work of many dedicated people—among them Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and Barbara Kingsolver—the American public is more aware of the carbon footprint of their dinner plates, and just how vastly the size of this foodprint can vary depending on their choices as consumers. This awareness has led to a rising understanding that consuming local food reduces the carbon emissions associated with food packaging and transportation. But local food can still have a significant carbon footprint and local environmental impact.

Gardeners who irrigate with drinking water have the highest carbon footprint, since it takes energy to pump, treat, and pressurize the water. Well water has a carbon footprint because of pumping, and sometimes canal water delivered using gravity must be pressurized or pumped to reach your garden. All gardeners should understand how much energy is embedded in their irrigation water and do their best to use water with the lowest energy and carbon footprint.  That might mean growing food at a community garden served by a canal instead of irrigating with drinking water in a home backyard.

The Boise Urban Garden School. Photo by Liz Paul

All gardeners should use only as much water as their plants need. This will enable some gardeners to save energy and help combat climate change, and all will reduce the stress on the Boise River by using water efficiently.  Decreased demand for water means less water is pumped from the aquifer and diverted from the river.  While this is an important short-term effect, the real benefit is the long-term elimination of the need to build new storage dams on the Boise River.  Dams inflict some of the most significant damage to river systems. When gardeners, as well as all other community members, make existing water supplies extend further, expensive and ecologically harmful new dams will prove unneeded.

The nexus between food, rivers, energy, and climate change is important.  Because climate change has such a direct impact on rivers, and rivers are so intimately tied to our food, we must adopt strategies to green our gardens, just as we have learned to green our homes. An overwatered garden not only can have a significant carbon footprint, it can magnify existing stresses on rivers and fish.  Treasure Valley residents can grow sustainable gardens with less water and now is the time to start. You can view water-wise gardening techniques on the Idaho Rivers United Web site (

Only by recognizing the role of rivers in our food production can we develop approaches to grow local food in such a way that it can help offset the effects of climate change and keep the Boise River free-flowing.

About Keats Conley:
Keats Conley is a native of Boise and a recent environmental studies graduate from The College of Idaho. This summer she is helping with conservation work at Idaho Rivers United, which includes researching the carbon footprint of local drinking water.
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