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Protecting Our Food and Water Against the Perils of Climate Change

April 21, 2022
The foundation’s Environment Program leaders discuss the threats posed by climate change – and the actions we can take to turn the tide

Climate change poses dire threats to our food and water supply. Increasingly, Americans see the impacts in their daily lives and feel a growing sense of urgency to confront climate change – through personal action and stronger public policy to safeguard our oceans and rivers.

The Walton Family Foundation is working to ensure we have enough healthy water for people and nature to thrive together. That means working closely with farmers, fishers, ranchers and businesses on solutions that protect food and water resources and build climate resilience in their communities.

We asked leaders of the foundation’s Environment Program about the impacts of climate change in the places they work – and steps we can take to create opportunities for a better future.

What are the most important things for people to know about the impact that climate change is having on food and water?

Teresa Ish, Oceans Initiative lead: Oceans absorb between 30% and 50% of the carbon dioxide we produce, so a healthy and thriving ocean is key to a healthy planet. Taking care of the fish is an important part of taking care of the whole ocean ecosystem. As ocean waters warm, fish move. If fisheries managers don’t adjust to this movement, fisheries can be depleted – threatening our access to a healthy, delicious food with a low-carbon footprint.

Source: Walton Family Foundation/Morning Consult poll March 4-6, 2022

Ted Kowalski, Colorado River Initiative lead: The Colorado River provides water to more than 40 million people in the United States and Mexico. It irrigates approximately five million acres to provide an important food source to the country and the world. If you eat winter lettuce in the United States, it probably came from lands irrigated by Colorado River water. Climate changes presents challenges for the communities that need a secure water supply and for rural economies built on different assumptions about how much water the Colorado River can sustainably provide. We have already seen the longest and deepest drought over the last 22 years - the worst mega-drought in thousands of years. It has resulted in 20% less water on an average annual basis – and climate change suggests we will see even greater heat and less precipitation in the years ahead. But drought is even not the right word because it suggests we will return to non-drought times. Many scientists have suggested we are experiencing aridification, which is a new normal, or new abnormal, due to climate change. We must learn to live with less water in a hotter and drier future.

Amy Saltzman, Mississippi River Initiative lead: Climate change means changing weather patterns in the Mississippi River basin. In the Upper Basin, warming spring temperatures mean rapid snowmelt, more precipitation falling as rain and saturated soils. Rain is also increasing in intensity, with more precipitation falling in a shorter amount of time, throughout the basin. Historically, the Mississippi River and its tributaries flooded seasonally into lands that abut the river – floodplains. Over time, communities have constructed levees along riverbanks to protect themselves from floodwaters – but those constrict the river and push more water downstream, creating higher water levels for communities downstream. We need to increase the water holding capacity of our soils and improve natural infrastructure to slow and hold water to protect communities from flood risk. This is essential to protect the 30 million people and 100 million acres of crops in the basin. Agriculture is unique because it can go beyond reducing emissions and actually have a constructive role in fighting climate change. improving soil health, and more.

Source: Walton Family Foundation/Morning Consult poll. March 04-06, 2022

What steps can people take to mitigate the impact of climate change and help our water and food resources become more resilient?

Teresa Ish: Choosing sustainable seafood is great, but letting the places where you shop and your elected officials know that sustainable seafood is important to you is even better. Just 15 companies control 40% of the globally traded fish. They can make real changes to how fish are managed. The U.S. is the fourth largest fishing nation in the world, so we have an opportunity in our own country to take care of the oceans.

Ted Kowalski: In the Colorado River Basin, climate change will require all of us to increase water conservation. Farmers and ranchers can achieve this through crop switching (from water-thirsty crops to more water-efficient crops), temporary fallowing, or other agricultural water-efficiency infrastructure. In addition, cities should continue to develop water-recycling projects (like the largest water recycling plant being built in Los Angeles right now). Individuals can conserve water through making different landscaping decisions since most domestic water consumption that occurs is related to outdoor irrigation.

Amy Saltzman: Farmers can improve resilience by keeping “roots in the ground, all year round” – often by planting a cover crop to protect soil and water for their main cash crop. Edge-of-field practices like saturated buffers and wetlands also help to slow and hold water. Conservation practices like these can reduce farmers’ exposure to weather-related risks while also improving water quality and soil health. Consumers can demand food produced with sustainable agricultural practices and let their elected officials know that they care about policies that support an agricultural system that is good for people and the planet.

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