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US: The cost of water and why indoor farms need nutrient cycling

A few years ago, the topic of the “real cost of water” became increasingly prominent, especially as water scarcity issues were (and still is) growing by the day. One statistic that was frequently quoted was this: An average burger is produced using up to 3,140 liters of water. In fact, a burger requires so much water that an Olympic-size swimming pool would only be able to produce 1,250 burgers. Naturally, agriculture then became a focus area as people began to assess how the industry was affecting the water situation. In their blog post, Re-Nuble discusses how resolving the challenges of the future requires a thorough reconsideration of how water is managed in the indoor farming sector, and how it can be repositioned.

Indoor farms need to dig into water resource efficiency
Indoor farming is often touted as being one of the silver bullets to solve water scarcity issues around the world. Compared to a soil-based farm, soilless farms use 15x less water to grow a head of lettuce. However, as water droughts and erratic weather patterns increase, the need for indoor farms to improve their resource efficiency through water reuse is important. Farms must proactively assess how water can become an operational asset and security, particularly for those in areas that are exposed to water issues on a frequent basis.

What we need to know about the current water crisis
In spring this year, the U.S West encountered its driest spring in seven years. Drought hit approximately 75% of the land across 11 western states, covering over 44% of the contiguous US. This won’t only affect agricultural production, but it could spark even more deadly wildfires across the West Coast, and even hurt power production.

One could potentially conclude that it’s mostly the West Coast that will take a hit with the water crisis. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the case. Water shortages aren’t only going to hit regions that we’d typically expect to be dry. Instead, with 96 out of 204 water basins across the US, including the central and southern Great Plains, the Southwest and central Rocky Mountain states, as well as parts of California, the South, and the Midwest, will likely be impacted. In other words, areas that aren’t used to water shortages need to be prepared – and soon. 40 out of 50 states are already expecting water shortages and 83 of the country’s basins will be in dire conditions within 2021. 

Hedging water risks for farms
Overall, water rates are rising. In addition, the year-to-year volatility of water prices is jarring. Over the last eight years, the annual average water rate has swung from a high of 6.0% in 2014 to a 1.5% low in 2018, with the largest changes occurring in Texas and California. With summer already in full swing in many states, experts are also expecting the spot water market to increase substantially, especially having seen water futures tied to the market climb by 12.5% between December 2020 and March 2021. Another factor for farms to consider is the increasingly complex and tiered water rate structures employed by utilities in an effort to manage factors such as regulatory enforcement and swings in customer demand (eg: due to conservation demands).

Closed-loop systems and agriculture
A long-term strategy to deal with this is the incorporation of closed-loop systems within a farm. The good news is that there’s a lot of technology that currently exists. What farms need to get to the bottom of is understanding what’s important for their particular business.

According to Re-Nuble, many farms are looking for a fully integrated and closed-loop system. But there are additional aspects that could be incorporated, such as a self-sustaining nutrient system, capable of reducing input and disposal costs through their On-site Food Waste Recovery System. In addition, because it’s not just a matter of recirculating water, but also about monitoring the water quality which then affects a multitude of growing components (crop health, nutrients, etc), finding a closed-loop system that provides access to this insight has become key.

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