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When Seeking Water Savings, Increasing Agricultural Efficiency Could Backfire

Dec 15 2015

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Strawberries receiving drip irrigation on a Watsonville, CA farm during the summer of 2015. (USDA via Flickr)
 

This past spring, a New York Times editorial criticized California farmers’ use of flood irrigation amid the state’s ongoing drought. The authors urged farmers to “switch from flood irrigation or inefficient sprinklers to drip or microspray systems, which use less water.”

According to the Center’s Vanessa Casado-Perez and Maggie Niu (’17), the Times’ editorials – and others like them – suffer from a flaw in conventional wisdom about agricultural water use during drought. Drip and microspray irrigation systems, while more efficient, often do not end up conserving water at all. Instead, says Niu, a research assistant for Casado-Perez during the summer of 2015, “efficient technologies like drip irrigation actually consume more water than older methods,” which generate return flows that can be reused by other farmers. Because drip and microspray systems deliver water directly to the crop in small quantities, the water is either entirely absorbed or lost to evaporation.

As a result, Niu and Casado Perez write, “promotion of drip or sprinklers may backfire: they may divert less water and produce more in a single plot of land, but they may consume more water than flood, thus having negative systemic effects.”

Water Conservation Goals and Policies May Be Misaligned

Niu and Casado-Perez wondered if the mismatch between the stated goal – water conservation – and the technical solution – increasing efficiency – was one that affected the water policies of many western states, one that might limit their ability to achieve water conservation.

Research Surveys Western State Water Policies

For a forthcoming paper entitled “Agricultural Water Conservation Policies in the West,” the authors examined conservation regulations and legislative statutes in seventeen states from up in the Dakotas and Texas westward. Pointing out that the official definition of agricultural conservation is “reducing the amount of water used on farms,” they point out that “the reality is much more complex.”

In their paper they find that conservation programs vary widely. Many states mention conservation in their codes and water plans, but for several, like Idaho and Nevada, participation is strictly voluntary. By contrast, parts of Arizona have some of the most stringent conservation requirements. Conservation plans vary also in their scope – local, as in Texas, or statewide – and at whom the measures are aimed, whether individual farmers or entire irrigation districts.

Federal Program is Also Problematic

Niu and Casado-Perez also looked at the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), funded by the federal government and managed in partnership with the states. EQIP subsidizes farmers looking to switch to more efficient irrigation systems – generally drip irrigation. They found that while EQIP identifies its goal as natural resource conservation, nowhere does the text define what that means, nor how switching to efficient watering systems would bring real water savings. “EQIP,” they conclude, “takes for granted that the adoption of efficient irrigation systems will achieve the desired goal.”

Finding Models in State Legislative Statutes

Failing to find evidence of robust conservation either in state codes or in a widely used federal program, the authors turned to state legislative statutes “aimed at solely promoting the conservation of water.” They found measures like these in four states they studied: Montana, Washington, California and Oregon.

Of these statutes, Niu and Casado-Perez conclude that California’s legal framework is the one that most clearly prioritizes reduced water consumption. Like the others, it incentivizes farmers to save water by granting them full or partial right to the water they conserve, which they can then lease or sell this water to another right holder. Additionally, however, California’s law is the only one that requires a net reduction in consumption for water rights holders to retain their right.

In summation, the authors say that states “should tailor legislation to fit the water supply and demand of their state, focusing on whether increased efficiency will bring them more benefits, even with the possibility of increasing consumption, or whether conserving water is their priority.”

But states should never assume that pursuing one goal will achieve the other.