* Ranchers, farms eye new water-saving initiatives
* MillerCoors partners with farmers to save water
* Non-profits push "water as a crop" program
By Carey Gillam
BLOOMING GROVE, Texas, June 30 Texas cattle
rancher Gary Price knows what it is like to worry about water.
With 2,500 acres of rough range land situated about an hour
south of Dallas, Price relies on rain-fed soils to provide the
hearty grass forage he needs to fatten his cattle. When the
animals are sold at grocery meat counters, every pound of flesh
spells potential profit for Price's family.
"Ranching is really mostly about water and grass. So you've
got to look at ways to control water," Price said in an
interview at his 77 Ranch, where temperatures over 100 degrees
drive his cattle into the shade every day and have spurred
swarms of hungry grasshoppers.
A recent stretch of devastating drought in Texas and fears
of ongoing water scarcity across many parts of the United States
are pushing Price and others in ranching and farming into new
frontiers of water conservation.
In Price's case, that means teaming up with a corporate
partner, water-thirsty MillerCoors Brewing Co. The
second-largest U.S. brewer has been helping him build fences for
new grazing rotations and plant native prairie grasses that grow
thick, retain rainwater and limit runoff.
Corporate America's concerns about water availability are
not new, but of late they are growing. More than 40
international corporate leaders met in June in Rio De Janeiro to
reaffirm the need for concerted action to address a growing
Across the globe, water consumption has tripled in the last
50 years, and at least 36 U.S. states are anticipating some
areas of water shortages by 2013, according to the Environmental
Protection Agency. Farming alone consumes 70 percent of all
fresh water used around the world.
With that in mind, public and private interests working on
water conservation have started pushing partnerships with
farmers and ranchers to protect water quantity and quality. The
work is starting in Texas but is intended to spread nationwide.
INVEST IN FARMING PRACTICES
In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would
fund $2.8 million for improved land and water management
practices like those on Price's land, providing incentives to
farmers in an area of Texas that targets 152,309 acres.
"It is not going to be one organization or one company or
one government that is going to solve this problem. It is going
to take all of us collectively," said Kim Marotta, MillerCoors
director of sustainability.
MillerCoors acted after an internal assessment showed that
three of its eight U.S. breweries, including one in Fort Worth,
Texas, faced potential water shortages. The company is working
on water conservation at its breweries, but also is identifying
large agricultural water users near its breweries and asking to
partner with them on conservation.
"We're just starting that work," Marotta said. "You have to
The moves come as water gains stature as an critical asset,
a must-have resource that everyone from farmers to investment
fund managers need to control. At MillerCoors, for example, it
takes about 4 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of beer.
The Texas efforts follow the 2011 drought that cost state
agriculture more than $7 billion in losses. Last year was the
driest year in state history. While some parts of Texas have
since received rain, the drought appears to be spreading to the
U.S. Midwest and to parts of the southern Plains again as
scorching heat and cloudless skies burn up crops and pasture.
"You have to do more with less," said Ken Klaveness,
executive director of Trinity Waters, a non-profit conservation
group focused on the 512-mile-long Trinity River, which supports
water needs for over 40 percent of Texans.
"If you want your business to be here 15 to 20 years from
now, you need to be proactive," Klaveness said.
Projects with farmers can range from planting of grasses
with deeper root systems that hold water and reduce erosion to
installing high-tech monitoring stations in pastures.
FARMERS, RANCHERS CHANGING TECHNIQUES
Farmers are being asked to change irrigation techniques and
equipment and plant a mix of different crops. Ranchers are asked
to alter the ways they rotate their cattle grazing.
MillerCoors is also working with 800 barley farmers in Idaho
to alter their irrigation practices in ways that use less water.
MillerCoors will not disclose how much it is spending, but
Marotta said the effort was a high priority.
The company has worked with Trinity Waters and groups like
the Sand County Foundation, a Wisconsin-based non-profit that
works with landholders to improve natural habitats.
Though he has long worked on ways to preserve water on his
ranch, Price says creating a 40-acre wetland and planting more
native grasses in recent years with the outside funding has
helped make him better prepared for the Texas droughts.
Three of Price's pastures now sport large metal contraptions
containing computers that monitor rainfall and runoff through
varying types of grass. Though results are not yet in, the hope
is that scientists monitoring the results will be able to
determine which grasses are most effective and approximately how
much water they help prevent from running off.
Price also has new fencing and a showcase variety of the
water-trapping native prairie grasses. The grasses grow so thick
and lush even with scarce rainfall that his pastures have a
marked distinction from those of his nearby neighbors who have
cultivated more typical bermuda grasses.
By preventing erosion and runoff when it does rain, and
holding more moisture in the soil, Price is improving his
ability to feed his cattle without costly supplemental hay. He
is also reducing sediment contamination of nearby streams.
Klaveness said many other landowners are moving to make
similar improvements on their lands, including more than 100 who
have applied for government grants for the work.
"We have over 200,000 acres of landowner interest we are
getting ready to mobilize," he said. "The water we have is
finite. We can't make more."