Connecticut residents are invited to join the 40 Gallon Challenge and take on new practices to increase water conservation. The 40 Gallon Challenge is a national call for residents and businesses to reduce water use on average by 40 gallons per person, per day.
As a participant in the challenge, one commits to taking on additionalindoor and outdoor water savings activities. Impactful actions to choose from include: installing a “smart irrigation controller” that adjusts for temperature and precipitation (40 gallons daily savings), replacing an old, non-efficient showerhead with low flow showerhead (20 gallons daily savings), and fixing a leaky toilet and faucet (45 gallons daily savings).
“New York City is surrounded by water,” Angie Harris says, “I realized it was a great source of beauty, transportation, and recreation. But it was also contaminated and deeply problematic.” Angie grew up in Queens, New York. She realized water was a crucial resource of concern while an undergraduate at New York University studying environmental sciences.
The interdependent relationship of farming, water and land was also intriguing to Angie. Precipitation and ecology are critical to success in farming. She earned her masters’ degree in environmental science at the University of Rhode Island and worked as a research fellow at the Environmental Protection Agency in the Global Change Research Program. Angie joined UConn Extension two years ago as the Program Coordinator for the Agriculture Water Security Project.
The Agriculture Water Security Project is part of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)’s Regional Conservation Partnerships Program and promotes conservation assistance to agricultural producers. The program facilitates Extension’s work in ensuring farmers are thinking about and preparing for drought.
“I serve as a resource for farmers, gardeners, and homeowners to guide and advise them on water conservation and drought preparedness and management. I also serve as a network builder and connect them to other existing resources and organizations,” Angie says. She uses a combination of her education, and personal experience as a full-time farmer for three years in her role on the project. “My mission is to increase the adoption of conservation practices and activities throughout the state.”
Extension is assessing how much water farmers use, and completed a statewide water use survey on irrigation practices and water availability concerns. Next, a pilot metering project at 12 farms tracked their weekly water use for two years. The farms included vegetable, dairy, and nursery and greenhouse operations.
“The farmers kept diligent records and it was inspiring to see how they became scientists and water managers. A curiosity emerged around water use and they demonstrated that they really wanted to know how much water they were using and when,” Angie says.
A key turning point in the water project came at the end of 2016, a serious drought year for Connecticut. UConn Extension hosted a drought listening session for farmers at the Capitol and documented their concerns and ideas in a clear way that was communicated with the state Department of Agriculture and NRCS.
Connecticut developed a state water plan over the last few years. Mike O’Neill, associate dean for outreach and associate director of UConn Extension, served on the planning committee and represented agriculture in the plan’s development.
The next step for the Agriculture Water Security Project was helping farmers prepare drought plans and connecting them to financial assistance from NRCS. A total of 10 projects were provided financial assistance related to developing more robust and secure irrigation infrastructure. Projects included new wells and buried irrigation pipeline.
“We helped a couple of farms access funding to install wells, and it continues to be rewarding to see how pleased the farmers are to have the new resources,” Angie mentions. The Extension project continues to offer irrigation and drought planning resources for farmers.
“I’m excited to see farmers living out their values around land stewardship and food production in thoughtful and creative ways. There is always something that people can do, or a small action they can take to be a mindful citizen,” Angie says. “There is always more to learn, for farmers and residents. For instance, knowing how much water it took to make your jeans or plastic food packaging – it’s important for all of us to continue our learning around the impacts of our actions and consumption.”
Angie led UConn Extension’s initiative around the 40-Gallon Challenge, a national call for residents and businesses to reduce water use on average by 40 gallons per person, per day. It quantifies impacts on the linkage between small actions and water use.
Citizens nationwide are encouraged to participate in the 40-Gallon Challenge by enrolling at http://www.40gallonchallenge.org/. Materials were developed and promoted by Angie and Casey Lambert, a student intern, that quantified water saved by various actions residents can take in their home and yard.
Connecticut is no longer in a drought. But the work of stewardship continues. Angie’s goal is to prepare farmers and residents before water resources become a crisis. By encouraging everyone to simplify, we hone in on the essential needs and ensure successful growing seasons in the years to come.
This project is sponsored by USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Award identification 68-1106-15-05.
While Connecticut residents live in a state with ample water resources, we are beginning to notice some changes in precipitation trends.
“Connecticut is very fortunate as we’re actually quite water rich,” says Angie Harris, research assistant in UConn Extension. “We are getting rainfall, but there’s a shift in what we are beginning to experience, and what scientists expect to continue, which is more intense rain events less frequently. This type of rainfall can lead to drought conditions for agricultural producers.”
In 2015, Connecticut requested over $8 million dollars in federal emergency loans to be made available for crop losses due to moderate drought conditions across the state.
Mike O’Neill, associate dean and associate director of UConn Extension, and Harris are working on a two-year water conservation project funded through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Funding is provided through a $400,000 NRCS grant matched one to one by the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.
The UConn team is partnering with NRCS to promote conservation assistance to agricultural producers. The project goal focuses on agricultural water security by helping farmers prepare for drought, improve their irrigation efficiency and establish water conservation practices.
“In the past, NRCS did everything themselves,” O’Neill explains. “But now they are outsourcing some of that work because they realize we have partnerships in the community that can be effective in helping people implement agricultural conservation practices. I think this is a very innovative act on the part of the NRCS.”
Twelve pilot sites across the state have been identified to include a variety of agricultural operations including greenhouses, nurseries, vegetable growers and dairy and livestock farms.
“We’re really trying to target new and beginning agricultural operations because we feel they run the greatest risk of failure as a result of drought,” O’Neill says. “We look at what these operations can do in advance to make them more secure when a drought hits. If you can prepare farmers in advance, then when drought occurs, they’re not dealing with mitigation or lost crops, they will be able to weather the drought and be successful.”
The first step in the project involved review of the operations, followed by a site visit. Then the team installed a water meter at each site. The meter information is easily managed by farmers through an innovative text messaging data collection method developed by Nicholas Hanna, computer programmer with the College’s Office of Communications. The program allows operators to check their meter reading once weekly, quickly send the results via text messaging and receive a confirmation of their submission.
The readings are entered into a database associated with their number and farm name. By season’s end, the team will chart water usage tied to climate variables such as precipitation and wind, and will then review current watering practices and help owners develop strategies that manage water usage and prepare for drought conditions.
The NRCS will also use this data to help farmers access water saving strategies and equipment.
“In the end, we will be directing them to NRCS for financial assistance to implement conservation practices,” says Harris. The NRCS financial assistance programs are designed to help agricultural producers maintain and improve their water program in areas such as soil management and irrigation efficiency.
Some seventy-five agricultural producers have expressed interest in the program thus far, with the number growing weekly. To join the program, farmers complete a water use survey available online. A member of the team will conduct a field site visit. “If farmers are interested in getting a meter, we want to hear from them,” says O’Neill.
“We have a really great team working on this project,” he says. The group includes Rosa Raudales, assistant professor and horticulture extension specialist in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture; Mike Dietz, extension educator in water resources, low impact development and storm water management; and Ben Campbell, former assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, currently an assistant professor and extension economist at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
In another aspect of the project, the team is partnering with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Office of Policy and Management to explore water needs for agriculture in Connecticut. This understanding could inform policy decisions for future agricultural development within the state.
“This is a teachable moment for us,” O’Neill says. “We feel like these agricultural producers are scientists. We have an opportunity to help farmers conserve water, increase profitability and preserve the environment. They treat their business as a science, and we are trying to work with them to help them enhance their science capabilities and make better choices.”
Connecticut is not the first place that would likely come to mind if I asked you to come up with a part of the country that experiences drought; the desert southwest and California might typically be first on the list. However, southern New England has received less than normal amounts of precipitation for the past several years, and the impacts are being felt. Some homeowners with shallow wells are running out of water, a reservoir in Massachusetts got so low that it had to be taken off line, and water restrictions have been implemented in some areas. And for the first time ever, the governor has issued a drought watch for 6 of our 8 counties.
Figure 1. Annual precipitation in Connecticut, 1895 – 2015.
Let’s take a quick look at our annual precipitation totals over the last 120 years. As can be seen in Figure 1 (data from the interactive NOAA website), annual precipitation in Connecticut can be quite variable. Our “normal” annual precipitation is around 47 inches per year (horizontal line in graph). We have had many years with less than normal precipitation, and a prolonged drought in the 1960s. The last four years have all been below normal, and 2016 is looking to finish in that category as well.
What does it actually mean to be in drought condition? For Connecticut, there are several criteria used to make this decision, which can be seen on the State of Connecticut water status page:
Precipitation: three or more cumulative months below 65% of normal
Groundwater: five or more consecutive months below normal
The State Drought Preparedness Plan is also available on this page (did you know we had one of these? I didn’t…). The criteria used to determine our drought status cover a wide range of areas; it is not just about how much rain we have had recently. It becomes clear after looking at this list just how much we depend on rainfall to support our existence in this region. Our drinking water supplies and agricultural production in the state are heavily dependent on regular precipitation. This is quite different from the Western U.S. where winter snowpack or large river systems provide irrigation and municipal water.
The U.S. Drought Monitor provides information on national drought conditions. A number of different indices are used to determine the classifications from “Abnormally Dry” to “Exceptional Drought”. Parts of Connecticut are currently classified as being in Extreme Drought, where major crop losses and water shortages/restrictions are possible. Agricultural producers can be extremely vulnerable to drought, as many in this area are dependent on natural precipitation to water their crops. UConn Extension is currently working with agricultural producers in the Connecticut to help them become more resilient to drought. More information on this project can be found at http://water.extension.uconn.edu.
What can you do? If you are on a public water system, your supplier may have already sent you information on how to reduce your consumption to ensure adequate supplies for all. The Regional Water Authority has tips on their website. If you have a shallow well, you will want to pay close attention to your water system, and contact a well contractor if you believe you are running out of water. Any of the tips on the website above will help to reduce your consumption and ensure that you have adequate water for your home.
It is uncertain at this point when this drought will end. Changing climate may be exacerbating this problem; both more extreme precipitation totals and extended periods of drought are expected for southern New England. For now, I will watch hopefully out the window to see if today’s rain will bring some much needed relief.
“More than 600 pre-proposals were submitted nationwide. With so many strong proposals, the project selection process was extremely competitive,” said Lisa Coverdale, Connecticut State Conservationist for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. “We are so very proud that three from Connecticut have been selected for funding. This is such an amazing opportunity to work with some really innovative groups, including some we’ve never had the opportunity to work with before.”
Chosen as a national project was a proposal submitted by the Connecticut Association of Conservation Districts which will address excess nutrients that have been identified as the primary cause of hypoxic conditions in Long Island Sound (impacting upland water resources within the watershed including areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont). The RCPP program will provide $10 million toward the project which will develop a comprehensive, whole-farm management certainty program for farmers in the area. The project will utilize both working lands and easement programs to improve soil health and nutrient management, establish community resiliency areas with a focus on enhancing riparian areas, and institute a land protection program to protect agricultural and forestry areas.
“RCPP puts our partners in the driver’s seat,” said Coverdale. “Projects are led locally, and demonstrate the value of strong public-private partnerships that deliver solutions to tough natural resource challenges.”
“This grant is a major investment that will help preserve our treasured Long Island Sound for generations to come,” said Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-2). “The funding will enable local, state and federal partners to work together to protect the watershed across our region, improving the health of the Sound and strengthening our regional commitment to our environment.”
“This new funding gives the Long Island Sound a welcome and much-needed boost,” said Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), Co-Chair of the Congressional Long Island Sound Caucus. “It will enable us to connect local, state and federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations, across the Long Island Sound watershed, and give them necessary resources to protect the Sound. In addition to protecting the natural beauty of the Sound, this helps create tourism and recreation jobs, bolstering our economy. This level of coordination and funding is unprecedented, and a great step forward for Connecticut.”
“For the strength of our regional economy and the long term health of our environment, preservation of the Long Island Sound and its watershed is imperative,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal. “Connecticut is leading the region in this vital effort to ensure our waterways, farmland and forests continue to thrive as we confront the looming challenge of climate change. This powerful collaboration will pay dividends for generations to come, and I look forward to continuing to support this important work.”
“This new initiative provides an incentive for local conservation districts, state and federal agencies, and non-governmental organizations to collaborate on a landscape scale program to protect Long Island Sound,” said Denise Savageau, President of the Connecticut Association of Conservation Districts. “The RCPP will allow us to better leverage resources and will serve as a catalyst for new public-private partnerships within the watershed.”
“This multi-organization initiative provides land use managers the tools and resources to make a significant positive impact on conditions affecting Long Island Sound and its tributaries,” said Jeff Folger, Chair of the Connecticut Council on Soil and Water Conservation.
“The Connecticut River Watershed Council is pleased to be one of the project partners that will be using the RCPP award to improve the health and vitality of both the Connecticut River and the Long Island Sound,” said Andrew Fisk, Executive Director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council. “These two iconic New England waterbodies contribute mightily to the quality of life and the economy of New England, so we are proud to be working with landowners to help them do their part to restore and protect the public’s water.”
“The Nature Conservancy is excited to be part of the Long Island Sound Watershed Regional Conservation Partnership Program,” said Kim Lutz, Director of the Conservancy’s Connecticut River Program. “These funds will provide critical dollars to address conservation needs in two connected natural systems that are priorities for the Conservancy: the Long island Sound and the Connecticut River systems. We’re especially happy to have the opportunity to expand our work helping improve resilience in the face of a changing climate. The Conservancy is extremely grateful to Congressman Joe Courtney, of Connecticut’s 2nd District, and Congressional representatives throughout the multistate Long Island Sound watershed for support of this funding. We look forward to working with the NRCS and a diverse array of partners throughout the region to achieve the projects’ ambitious goals.”
“Long Island Sound is one of the Northeast’s greatest natural resource and deserves our protection and preservation,” said DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee. “As it is a regional resource, it requires regional efforts to ensure its health – the funding we are receiving today will help make this happen.”
“Protecting the shellfish-rich waters of Long Island Sound by helping farmers implement best-management practices on working farmlands is critical to sustaining the growth of Connecticut’s thriving agricultural economy,” state Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said. “This funding will help ensure that these vital natural resources continue to produce both healthy food for consumers and a prosperous living for our hardworking farmers and other agricultural producers. I applaud the NRCS for this innovative approach that leverages resources and enlists the collaboration of all involved stakeholders.”
“We are thrilled to be part of this pivotal legacy initiative,” said Highstead Conservation Director Emily Bateson. “Highstead works with 20 public-private conservation collaboratives across the Long Island Sound Watershed who now have an opportunity to partner with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to dramatically increase land and clean water protection for future generations.”
Two additional state projects were selected for funding:
Achieving Agricultural Water Security in Connecticut through RCPP was submitted by the University of Connecticut. Partners will utilize $400,000 in RCPP funds to work with producers to help optimize food production, improve irrigation efficiency, reduce impacts of drought, and become economically resilient in the face of greater climate variability.
Improving Soil Health and Water Quality in the Thames River Watershedwas submitted by The Last Green Valley. Partners will utilize $400,000 in RCPP funds work to improve soil health and water quality in the Thames River Watershed. The long-term objective is to implement soil health conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program on 1,000 acres of cropland and show a measurable improvement of edge-of-field and in-stream water quality, including a decrease in nutrient and turbidity levels.
Projects not selected in this first year may be eligible in subsequent years. The next announcement of program funding for FY 2016 will be made later this year. For more information on Connecticut RCPP projects, visit the Connecticut NRCS website, or view the full list of projects on the National NRCS website.