Laurie Arthur is a farmer in the heart of Australia’s bread basket, the basin of the Murray River, who was kind enough, when I was trying to understand water, to explain how water works for farmers.
Arthur lives out in the wide open country east of Adelaide and north of Melbourne — flat, irrigated farmland where his nearest neighbor is 12 miles down the road, and where his white farm truck is often flanked by squads of kangaroos, who have no trouble keeping pace as he drives from field to field at 40 or 50 mph.
Arthur lives comfortably in a world most of us never visit, and even have a hard time grasping. He farms 10,000 acres. That amount of land is impossible to visualize, but its scale is easy to bring down to Earth.
Arthur took me to a single 150-acre field, which seemed to spread out in all directions toward the horizon. (You could park five Wal-Mart Supercenters, including their full parking lots, on that one patch of dirt.) That single field has a perimeter of 2 miles.
It is 1 percent of Laurie Arthur’s land.
If the land Arthur is responsible for cultivating is hard to grasp, the water he uses to make it blossom is truly astonishing.
To raise a single year’s crop, Arthur uses 1.6 billion gallons of water (6 billion liters) — a big slug of water. It’s enough to supply all the water needs for a town of 40,000 people, for a year.
One guy, with one farm, using as much water every single day as a city of 40,000 people.
Laurie Arthur has the charm and wry humor we find so irresistible in Australians — a disarming confidence, along with the bemused understanding that today, farmers are far more alien creatures than, oh, astronauts.
Arthur has introduced himself at school parent events as a farmer, and had fellow parents turn to him matter-of-factly and say, “Oh, you’re a water waster, then.”
What is Laurie Arthur doing with all that water, anyway?
He’s raising food — rice, to be specific.
In a year when everything goes right, Arthur raises 20 million pounds of rice, using those 1.6 billion gallons of water.
Is that good, or is that cavalier?
Well, with enough water to supply a city of 40,000 people for a year, he raises enough food to feed a city of 100,000 people for a year — all 100,000 people, 3 meals a day, for 365 days.*
Arthur smiles. “How much is the right amount of water to feed a city of 100,000 people?”
Today is World Water Day. The point of World Water Day is to draw attention to our favorite, our most familiar, and our most taken-for-granted resource. There is a delightful irony for water folks in the fact that World Water Day is itself mostly ignored by everyone outside the world of water. (Could we start a day to draw awareness to World Water Day?)
Every person on Earth revels in water every day, in some fashion — whether we celebrate water or not.
This year, the theme of World Water Day is the connection between water and food. Although most of us never think about water when we tuck into an omelet, or a turkey sandwich, or a dinner of salad, steak and rice pilaf, there is no more intimate connection than that between water and food.
In fact, food is water.