Reduce, re-purpose, re-use: The Water Crisis and BioOpportunity

April 14, 2015 |

water-crisis-1California is in the fourth year of severe drought, a condition which visited the US Midwest just two summers ago.

With water scarcity increasing around the globe, how can agriculture cope, and what can the technologies of the advanced bioeconomy do to help?

water-crisis-5This week, we’ve been photographing a surge in roadrunners roaming our small rancho west of Temecula, California, in the heart of “avocado country”. They’re up at higher elevation than seen before, and we see them hunting for earthworms that live in moist soils. A two-foot snowfall in January has kept the dirt wetter than expected in April, here.

What’s unusual about seeing roadrunners in Digestville is that we are home to a dozen or so coyotes. If you’ve watched any cartoons from the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour, you’ll know it’s hard times that persuades a roadrunner to stray deep into coyote country.

Roadrunner, live version

Roadrunner, live version

Accordingly, the arrival of our new roadrunner friends tells you everything you need to know about the soil conditions elsewhere.

It’s the absence of a snowpack in other parts of California that has state authorities alarmed, in this fourth year of drought.

Wiley, one of our local coyotes, on the hunt

Coyote, live version

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown of California ordered a 25 percent cut in urban water consumption, and took a lot of heat for exempting agriculture from any further water reductions.

As it turns out, there’s not much left to cut in agriculture. Deliveries to farms via the Central Valley Water Project are scheduled to drop to zero this year. That’s right, zero. As a result, hundreds of thousands of acres have been taken out of production, and more than 17,000 farm workers are out of work already due to drought, according to reports in the Sacramento Bee.

The politics of water

Avocado plantation, abandoned due to rising water costs, and NAFTA-era prices.

Avocado plantation, abandoned due to rising water costs, and NAFTA-era prices.

But critics say that agriculture hasn’t been hit hard enough, pointing to the fact that California’s nearly 26 million agricultural acres use of 80 percent of the water drawn across the state. Conservation manager John Carter told the Bee, “We know why they’ve been exempted. They have political power, and they’ve been there a long time.”

“Political power”.  “Exempted.” You can see a renewal on the way of the old fight between urban and rural interests over water rights and usage. That’s as tough a battle as exists, out west.

Here’s the argument that we hear: that 80 percent of California’s water goes to support agribusiness, but it represents only 2 percent of the state GDP.

That’s true. But it’s one side of the story.

Here’s the flip side. Agriculture represents 25 percent of California’s acreage, and the average value of agricultural land rose from $3400 in 2002 to $7200 in 2012.

That translates to an increase in $96.9 billion in (taxable) state wealth, and a $5.8-$8.7 uptick in California GDP, depending on whether you are using the lower-end Fed or higher-end USDA measure of the “wealth effect” and the extent to which you subscribe to the idea that rises in farm land value translate into spending in the same way that as in the overall real estate sector.

If so, that translates into a 0.3% to 0.5% bump in state GDP. In a state that has struggled for growth in recent years (ranking 20th, nationally, with a 2% growth rate) —  that’s, er, not nothing.

So, those are the two sides of the coin. Looking at the California “income statement”, agriculture is a small industry that hogs a lot of water. Looking at the California “balance sheet” and the “wealth effect”, it’s a major engine for the California economy.

How can the advanced bioeconomy help? Reduce, re-purpose, re-use.

So, the question becomes, how can science play a role, how can the advanced bioeconomy best contribute, in a major economy like California’s, and solve problems rather than complicate existing ones? There are three areas of focus:

1. Re-use. Technologies that unlock residues as a source for fuels, feed, fiber and more. There’s carbon in that landfill that can be utilized in a more sustainable way.  Why waste?

2. Re-purpose. A 2005 survey for the California Energy Commission identified “impaired agricultural lands in the San Joaquin Valley” as a locale for adding dedicated energy crops at some future date. Why not use the land for what it can do best? not every almond is more sustainable than every gallon of fuel.

3. Reduce. Technologies or breeding programs that increase yield compared to water usage, or increase resistance to drought.


The practical impact of the water crisis in California dictates a focus on residues in the Golden State, and crops that offer yield intensification compared to current land usage. That means food waste, municipal solid waste, animal residues, forest residues, and agricultural residue.

How much residue is there in California? 

Estimates are hard to come by. In 2005, the California Biomass Collaborative estimated the state’s “sustainable biomass resources” at 34 million bone dry tons, out of 86 million tons of total available resource. They pegged that at 25% agricultural residue, 31% from forestry, and 44% from municipal solid waste.

In addition, the same report identified 79 billion cubic feet per year of landfill gas and 16-18 billion cubic feet of wastewater treatment gas.

But using residues alone, allowing for recovery of one third of that biomass in feasible energy projects, and averaging 80 gallons per ton from residues and 5 KWH per cubic meter of gas, it adds up. Overall, the total is something like 900 million gallons of fuel, and 281 MW of electric power generation.  Or more than $1B per year in value-add revenue.

What about the CO2 opportunity?

Beyond solid residues, there’s CO2 itself. California produced 151 million tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 from point sources such as industrial operations or power production.  Capturing 10% of those emissions into algae projects where 60% of the biomass is converted into fuels (through whole algae liquefaction, after allowing for oxygen to be removed), could generate some 1.5 billion gallons of hydrocarbon fuel.


It takes 150 gallons of water to make a 6 ounce can of almonds.  Is it always a good idea to produce food, on any acre, than crops that are less water intensive? Here are two companies working on dedicated energy crops that can assist in getting more value out of the acreage we use.

Back in September 2013, we reported that representatives of Chromatin were meeting with farmers in the Tulare Valley to try to get them to grow sorghum has an alternative feedstock for ethanol. Rather than growing corn, the company says sorghum uses less fertilizers, chemicals and water, which can be especially beneficial in areas with limited water access. About 43,500 acres of sorghum were grown in the country in 2012, with most of it going to feed, and only accounted for $8.24 million of the county’s $119 million in grain sales. In February 2014, Chromatin debuted five new forage sorghum products now available for commercial testing.  These new products express the BMR (brown midrib) trait, which is highly valued by dairy and beef producers for its enhanced digestibility, palatability and nutritional value.  With sorghum’s natural drought tolerance, these new products provide high-yield options for hay, silage and grazing applications, even in regions with limited water resources.

In April 2014, we reported that NexSteppe sold more than 2,500 acres of its Palo Alto high biomass sorghums for biopower in Brazil in the previous past growing season. NexSteppe’s Palo Alto high biomass sorghums can be used alongside bagasse and other sources of biomass to provide a source of renewable baseload power. Due to a drought this year, Brazil is experiencing a shortage of hydropower. NexSteppe’s high biomass sorghums are a welcome addition to Brazil’s energy matrix. Palo Alto hybrid’s heat and drought tolerance allows it to perform well even under this year’s extreme conditions. We’re just now awaiting what are expected to be dramatically increased volumes in 2015.


Here are four technologies that can help in reducing inputs.

1. Cool Terra. As we reported last year, Cool Planet’s Cool Terra increased strawberry production by 56 percent with normal watering levels and with 40 percent less fertilizer. In recent turf grass trials with a municipality, a one-time permanent application of CoolTerra enabled water use to be cut in half, while improving the overall appearance of the lawns.

“It’s a water story,” said Cool Planet’s Rick Wilson,  “reducing water needs by half in some applications. There’s turfgrass. CoolTerra was applied during an aeration and was swept into plug holes. It cut water use by half in a Thousand Oaks trial, and a golf course averages 4 acre feet of water for the irrigated acres, each year. In commodity farming, there are opportunities where, with precision application where it can be applied at the time of seeding, and can reduce fertilizer use by 2/3.” Last week, Cool Planet offered to deliver a truckload of CoolTerra to reduce water usage on the California capitol lawns.

2. Water-saving membranes. In 2013, Michigan State University researchers said they had dramatically increased corn and vegetable production on test farms using revolutionary new water-saving membranes. The subsurface water retention technology uses contoured, engineered films, strategically placed at various depths below a plant’s root zone to retain soil water. The prototype can be used on a broad range of agricultural crops, as well as growing cellulosic biomass feedstock, plants grown specifically for fuel production, on marginal lands.

3. Drought-Gard. In 2012, Monsanto put “DroughtGard” in trial, a drought-tolerant corn, with 10,000 acres planted in a trial and a first commercial release. It’s a one-hit wonder gene, taking a bacterial cold shock protein, and trying to essentially infect the plant, thereby conferring the stress-resistant trait. Monsanto’s DEKALB DroughtGard Hybrids have consistently shown about a five bushel per acre yield advantage over competitors’ products. The drought tolerance trait in Genuity DroughtGard Hybrid’s represents the first commercial offering of the company’s joint R&D collaboration with BASF on yield and stress technologies.

4. Drought tolerance in rice. In 2013, Ceres announced that field trials conducted by scientists in China have demonstrated that its portfolio of drought tolerance genes provided significant improvements in yield protection in rice, which the company routinely uses to confirm trait performance.

One of Ceres’ genes produced an average of 25 percent more grain than experimental control plants and 20% more grain than rice plants containing a recently deregulated biotech drought trait. Biomass production was improved by 20 percent over the same controls. In addition to greater yield stability under drought conditions, some Ceres genes have also demonstrated yield benefits under normal watering conditions.

XBD201103-00121-06.TIFBonus: Research

Here are 4 strategies that are helping in terms of long-term research.

1. Bringing Big Data approaches to identifying genetic opportunities

This week, the BBC covered the topic with a report on the development of advanced mathematical algorithms to help target drought-resistant genes in the genome pool — targeting the more than 7 million germplasm accessions that are housed in more than 1700 agricultural genetic repositories around the world.

Dr. Abdallah Bari told the BBC that new “learning algorithms” could help “targeting the [samples] with a high probability of finding those traits and reducing the time it takes, [and] zone in on the desired traits, such as tolerance to pests, diseases, drought and heat”.

2. Modeling responses to stresses like drought

Last month, a Danforth Plant Science Center project was awarded $1.5 million from the Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture to understand physiologic responses of bioenergy grasses to environmental changes.

The research team will use a model grass, Brachypodium distachyon, to analyze the gene regulatory networks underlying drought stress responses. Specifically, they will identify and characterize the functional features of the genome associated with drought responses and will develop an integrated genome feature map, the Brachypodium Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (called ENCODE), that will enable advanced modeling of complex traits in plants.

3. Identifying a protein that controls water uptake and movement

Last August, a team including Dartmouth researchers uncovered a protein that plays a vital role in how plant roots use water and nutrients, a key step in improving the production and quality of crops and biofuels.  Plant roots use their endodermis, or inner skin, as a cellular gatekeeper to control the efficient use and movement of water and nutrients from the soil to the above-ground parts of the plant. A key part of that cellular barrier is the Casparian strip, which also helps plants to tolerate stresses such as salinity, drought and flooding.  The researchers found a protein, ESB1, to be involved in the deposition of lignin patches early in the development of the Casparian strip and the fusion of these patches into a continuous band of lignin as the Casparian strip matures.

4. A new improved model plant system for energy crops

In July 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded a five year, $12.1 million grant to researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and their collaborators at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University to develop a new model plant system, Setaria viridis, to advance bioenergy grasses as a sustainable source of renewable fuels. Setaria is much closer to the grasses – which are the source of energy crops and staple food crops, than traditional plant model arabidopsis.

The research team will produce one of the most extensive molecular characterizations of plant growth in the field to date, generating several million data points that will be collected from physiological and molecular genetic studies. In doing so, they hope to discover the mechanisms that underlie drought responses and identify candidate genes and pathways for improving the closely related feedstock grasses. The ability of bioenergy feedstocks to use water efficiently and to produce abundant yields at high density will be major drivers in the development of improved varieties that can serve as a replacement for petroleum-based fuels.

The Bottom Line

Though agriculture is in the process of being demonized by proponents of urban water usage — the advanced bioeconomny has much to offer California and other water-challenged districts to use water more wisely, and get more out of it.

Whether you plan on using Cool Terra soil amendments to reduce water use, deploy technologies to re-use residues in the landfill or sky, or re-purpose land unsuitable to food agriculture into more productive activities.

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