By Jennifer Ruisch
Word to the wise: hydroponics is water friendly. Anyone who is familiar with the practice knows this well. Newcomers might be surprised however, that upon closer inspection, hydroponics does not work quite how they thought it did. Far from being a drain on our collective fresh water reserves, hydroponics is a resource saver that can give the planet a leg up in the environmental fight for sustainability.
In drought-ravaged areas of the U.S. like California and Nevada, water is an increasingly scarce resource. The bleached salt rim around the edge of Lake Mead tells the sad tale of its dropping water level. Parts of Southern California and all of Las Vegas pull their water from this source, and the lack of rainfall in the area means a slow decline many years in the making. But there’s still hope.
A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey tells a different tale. One of dropping water usage. Americans are using less water now than they have in the last 45 years, and this may mean a light at the end of the tunnel for our nation’s freshwater reserves. The most common draw on our water resources comes from agricultural irrigation. But hydroponic gardening may just be able to step in and save the day. Advances in technology have allowed more green to be grown with less of that crystal clear going down the drain.
Let’s look at your basic flood table or an aquaponic setup. Both of these systems are enclosed. Water is not running continuously from a source, as some may mistakenly think. The water in one system is re-used again and again as a process of natural nutrient exchange happens. Outdoor crops may produce runoff, and can only push water in one direction: away from a source, and downstream, where it is lost. Hydroponic and aquaponic systems, conversely, maintain a well of water that is continually drawn from, with evaporation being pretty much the only factor in water loss.
In an aquaponic system, reservoirs are stocked with fish, which provide plant roots with healthy carbon and nitrates. The plants take up these nutrients, using them to grow. Water is recycled over and over again. These systems work in a continuous circle, reusing water as a vehicle for nutrient delivery. In ground crops, water is sprayed, and much of it runs into local waterways, taking nitrogenous, often synthetic fertilizer with it. This runoff can result in algae blooms and massive fish kills in neighboring streams, ponds and rivers. In some places, like the Colorado River, the water diverted for agricultural use has caused the river itself to run dry in spots.
Colorado can keep hope alive, however, as the water system is taking a turn for the sustainable, in part due to the dropping water usage in the US. Despite the population having grown continuously by leaps and bounds, the collective drain on our resources (pun intended) has plummeted. This is due in part to our somewhat newfound water consciousness. Low flow shower heads and controlled flushing mechanisms in toilets allow for thoughtful water usage. When a large population can make small changes individually, those add up incrementally to produce a wave (this pun also intended. I’m getting good at this.) of change that could take the U.S. to a new level when it comes to resource conservation.
Bit by bit, indoor gardeners can help make that change. If you live in a drought-prone area, be proud of your gardening practices. Let your friends know how your growing style affects the water system positively. Spread the love by teaching your friends to produce their own food and flowers with a system that won’t pass the costs on to the rest of the world.