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For a week now I’ve been driving around in the beautiful state of Idaho, marveling
at the mountains, the rolling fields of wheat and potatoes and, most of all, the water.
The fast moving mountain streams scream of power and some undefinable urgency. Perhaps
the urgency is to sculpt the land, as the forces of nature certainly have done over
the eons. Or perhaps it is an urgent need to be used before their essence drains away
to the sea, perhaps to never return.
But here as everywhere, water is a finite resource. Most of the agriculture I have
seen has been in the crescent shaped Snake River Plain that swings through the bottom
portion of the state like a crooked grin. The Snake and its tributaries, reservoirs
and aquifers provide most of the water needed to make the desert lush and green. For
this land is a high sagebrush desert, mostly receiving 10-15 inches of precipitation
When the hearty souls that settled Washington and Oregon passed through here in the
1840s and ‘50s on the fabled Oregon trail, they were not impressed. Only when the
more verdant lands to the west were fully occupied, did the travelers begin settling
on the dry desert. It took a while but they figuring out how to make a living from
Much of the irrigation water spirited away from the Snake River is carried in a network
of large and small canals the locals call coulees. These steep sided canals dart through
towns, across fields and hither and yawn, carrying the life-giving water to the crops.
Most of the canal building began about 1900 and was primarily used to flood the fields.
Today, center pivot and wheeled, straight line systems replace flooding, but still
there is only so much water. And it can only reach so far. The sagebrush grows on
rich fertile volcanic soil, but without water, only sagebrush and scattered clumps
of grass survive.
This is a drought year across all of the west, and Idaho has not been spared. Precipitation,
a large part of which comes as wintertime snow, is about half of normal and at Twin
Falls the river flow rate is down so much that the mighty Shoshone Falls is showing
more rock than water.
Idaho is, not surprisingly, the nation’s largest potato producer with more than 100
billion pounds produced on 300,000 acres. With 80 percent of a spud’s weight being
water, that is a lot of Snake River water being exported across the nation. Every
time you smack down on a French fry you’re enjoying a bit of clear, cold Snake River
water. About 60 percent of Idaho’s potatoes are processed into fries, hash browns
and potato chips; about 30 percent are sold fresh and about 9 percent are seed potatoes.
Alfalfa is another big crop in the state. Much of the alfalfa crop goes into feeding
the state’s rapidly expanding dairy herd, now the third largest in the nation. Milk
and other dairy products are mostly water, and most of it is consumed out of state.
The alfalfa not used to feed the dairy cows is now being exported to Japan, Korea,
Saudi Arabia and, before the trade war, China.
All farmers are selling water, but this reality is more starkly displayed when the
crops are grown in a desert using a finite supply of fresh water. The “eat local”
movement is growing across the land, but it is doubtful that close-to-home growing
will displace Idaho’s hold on potato production. Potatoes evolved in the Andes of
South America, so they are at home here in these cool, fertile soils. But we all need
to be more mindful of water, for it will become one of the most valuable resources
as we move forward into the brave new world.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.