First flooding. Then drought.
If Midwesterners weren't already thinking about water, after two consecutive years of extremes, they probably are now.
In fact, water and river issues are becoming so prominent, especially in the St. Louis area, that a handful of water-related events are on the agenda here, underscoring a new urgency around water challenges.
On Thursday, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center launched a two-part series on agriculture's significant impact on water use. Today, Washington University begins a four-day conference looking at the Mississippi River and climate change. On Monday, the American Water Resources Association will hold a conference here on water quality and farming.
Whether by design or not, all of these coincide with the United Nations' World Water Day - being celebrated today - an event designed to draw the world's attention to the worsening problem of water scarcity.
"A lot of people say water is finally being recognized as the crucial challenge around the world," said Dale Morris, an engineer who helped organize the Washington University conference. "It's the most critical resource. I guess you could say water's the new gold."
But water resources are tricky to manage, largely because so many factors impact them. Until recently, it seemed, the various stakeholders - farmers, businesses, conservation groups, municipalities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among them - only convened in emergencies.
"Crisis does bring us together - flooding in 2011, drought in 2012" said Todd Strole, of the Nature Conservancy, which last year helped launch the America's Great Watershed Initiative, a first-time collaboration intended to deal with challenges in the Mississippi River watershed. "But these are not easy issues. They're big in the scope of the landscape; they're big in terms of their impact on the economy and the environment. They deserve critical thinking, not crisis management."
One of the biggest factors in global water supplies is agriculture, which uses an estimated 70 percent of the world's water. At the same time, agriculture is one of water's biggest polluters.
With the world's population expected to rise from 7 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050, food demands - and, therefore water demands - will only go up. By 2025, some 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions where water is critically scarce.
Ultimately, both conservation and minimizing pollution will be critical.
"The numbers don't look promising. They don't add up, if you take business as usual," said Roberto Lenton, executive director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water For Food Institute at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, and a scheduled presenter at the Danforth Center on Thursday. "So we're going to have to tackle this on a number of different fronts."
Regionally, agriculture's impact on water is most keenly felt in the Mississippi River watershed, where nutrient run-off from farms is blamed for the bulk of the waterway's pollution and for the growing "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. More than 70 percent of the nitrogen responsible for the dead zone comes from farming, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Yet, until recently, farm groups and agricultural interests had done little to engage with non-farm players.
In 2008, Creve Coeur-based seed and biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. launched an initiative to reduce nutrient and sediment run-off in the river system, partnering with conservation groups. The company has funded several efforts to control run-off naturally, in four different watersheds.
"We can't influence individual farmers. That's how we end up in connection with groups like Monsanto," Strole said. "They can have a tremendous impact, and they're interested in the success of the farmer; they're interested in keeping soil on the farmer's field and not in the water."
Michael Doane, vice president of sustainable agriculture for Monsanto, was scheduled to speak on Thursday night at the Danforth Center event, along with Lenton.