Sandia National Laboratories, a thicket of desert-hued buildings on the southern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is best known for designing and maintaining nuclear weapons. So what are Phil Pohl and Ron Pate, two longtime Sandia engineers, doing in a greenhouse stuffed with oats, barley, and other types of animal forage?
Pohl and Pate hope their experimental greenhouse will help ease the impact of severe droughts, which have plagued New Mexico and much of the southwestern desert for the past seven years. The engineers also hope their project will contribute to national security -- by helping, in a modest way, to head off wars over water.
"National security means a lot of things," says Pohl. "It's not only being ready if you need a nuclear missile. It's also being prepared for emerging threats."
"Water is a sleeper issue," Pate adds, "but it's a global issue, and it's of growing concern." Population growth is stretching the world's supply of water to new extremes, and global warming is predicted to worsen drought in many areas; meanwhile, industrial pollution is rendering clean water unusable. With multiple countries jockeying for position in river basins such as the Nile, the Amazon, and the Tigris-Euphrates, military clashes over water aren't difficult to foresee.
For Pohl and Pate, preparation for new threats -- and for dry times -- begins in their water-efficient greenhouse. "When you tell people 'greenhouse,' they have this notion that it's like the one at Grandma's house, full of broken glass and difficult to operate," says Pohl. "It doesn't have to be that way."
The Sandia researchers' thoroughly modern structure is built with thin metal ribs, covered with clear plastic, and filled with racks holding about 1,800 Styrofoam trays. An array of wireless sensors monitors temperature and moisture levels in the trays, many of which are filled with thick green mats of barley and other forage plants. The plants are germinated and grown hydroponically, without soil, and are ready for livestock to eat in about 10 days.
The greenhouse covers less ground than a tennis court, but it can supply enough feed to support 50 to 100 cows, using about 1 percent of the water required by crops grown in open fields, and a fraction of the land. "You don't even need good land for hydroponics," says Pate. "You can do this in a parking lot."
Hydroponic techniques have been used for decades to grow high-value crops such as tomatoes, but steep labor and technology costs have discouraged farmers from using hydroponics to grow livestock forage. Pohl and Pate estimate that greenhouse forage remains almost three times as expensive as the traditional field-raised variety. They plan to use their technical expertise to see if hydroponic forage can be produced more cheaply and made more widely available, both within the United States and in other countries.
International cooperation, they hope, will lessen the pain of drought. In Mexico, for example, they're collaborating with the researcher Hector Gallegos and the hydroponic-system manufacturer Francisco Aguirre, both hydroponics experts in the state of Chihuahua, which subsidizes the practice to help farmers and their herds survive drought years.
In the United States -- and the western states in particular -- the success of creative water-saving techniques such as hydroponics will require farmers and politicians alike to abandon time-honored assumptions. "My dad was a cotton and alfalfa farmer, and he loved the open field," says Pate. "This is a totally different way to do agriculture. It's more of a crop factory." For more than a century, the federal government has generously subsidized irrigation water in the region, and farmers in New Mexico pay as little as seven dollars for each acre-foot of water -- about 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover a football field with water to a depth of one foot. These artificially low prices, combined with the "use it or lose it" principle that underlies western water law, give irrigators little incentive to conserve.
For hydroponic forage to make a tangible impact in the real world, researchers will also need a major boost in funding. Sandia, which is federally funded, has an overall annual budget of about $2.3 billion. Of this, the Sandia Water Initiative, which includes the hydroponics research and a variety of other water-conservation projects, receives about $15 million a year. But Pohl and Pate's greenhouse has received only a fraction of that amount, subsisting on about $400,000 in state and federal funding over the two years of its existence.
The efforts of the Sandia researchers may soon get a substantial boost from New Mexico's veteran Republican senator, Pete Domenici, who plans to reintroduce a bill this year that would set aside $200 million for Department of Energy research on water-efficiency and "augmentation" techniques such as desalination. The senator, all too familiar with the effects of drought on his home state, recently told a conference of western water managers that "we must use every tool available to confront these water problems."
Neither Domenici's energy-water technology bill nor Pate and Pohl's hydroponics is a cure-all. But together they suggest the kind of blend of innovative technology, political imagination, and hard cash that will be necessary to aid the drought-stricken regions of the world.
-- Michelle Nijhuis