With near-record low rainfalls in January after two years of drought, the state of California is facing prospects of the worst dry spell in more than 15 years. Municipal utilities are implementing voluntary and mandatory water conservation targets across the state, but it 2009 looks to present a tough challenge for water in the country's most populous state.

The drought is not just affecting businesses and individuals within the state, however. With the state's agriculture industry providing both a huge national economic boon as well as a significant chunk of the country's food supply, the drought that is hitting the state's farms will affect the rest of the country as well.

With this in mind, a new white paper from the California Agricultural Water Stewardship comes at an ideal time to shape how water gets used on farms in the state.

The paper, "Water Stewardship: Ensuring a Secure Future for California Agriculture," brings together agriculture, water and activist groups to explore the ways that agriculture can be both profitable and sustainable, especially through efficient water management.

"It appears increasingly obvious that there can be no economically, agronomically, and ecologically sustainable agriculture system without a sustainable water stewardship strategy" the paper's authors write.

Intended to foster discussion and lay out the groundwork for developing a sustainable water stewardship plan, the white paper outlines a handful of well established farming practices that can help maximize water efficiency on farms of all sizes. Among the techniques listed are increasing the ways water is captured on farmlands through constructed ponds, wetlands and other methods; making use of water sources other than surface- and groundwater, in particular by treating agricultural runoff water and reusing water on-farm; re-imagining ways of managing soil and irrigration practices to maximize water efficiency; and adopting technological solutions to pinpoint where water is needed.

Profiled in the white paper are case studies of farms and water-stressed regions that are making the most of scarce water supplies. From an Australian watershed-management program to California vineyards and dairy farms that have made significant water and cost savings from adopting these techniques. Napa Valley's Frog's Leap Vineyard saves roughly 16,000 gallons of water per year through its "dry farming operation," and the Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, Calif., recycles much of the 5,000 gallons of water it uses per day to clean their barns, and harnesses the methane from the wastewater to generate electricity on-farm.

The member organizations in the Stewardship that have published the white paper -- including the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, the California Institute for Rural Studies, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, the Ecological Farming Association, the Polaris Institute and the Water Institute of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center -- acknowledge that significant improvements in water efficiency and stewardship must come from industrial and municipal contributions as well. Those three groups have long been at loggerheads in population-rich and water-poor California, but the Ag Water Stewards recognize that change can begin on the farm and, through collaboration, can "benefit and protect farming while also sustaining the health of the ecosystems upon which we all depend."

The white paper is available to download from AgWaterStewards.org.

Farm photo CC-licensed by Flickr user Andrew Stawarz.