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Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Irrigation efficiency improvement projects have been implemented around the world with the expectation that improved irrigation efficiency would lead to increases in stream flows or groundwater supplies. Instead, the projects have lowered in-stream flows and accelerated declines in groundwater levels.

What has been overlooked is that in many projects, improved irrigation efficiency creates an incentive for farmers to:  plant a more profitable crop that consumes more water; increase production, and therefore water use, when water limits current crop yields; reduce the number of years they don’t irrigate; or expand the acreage irrigated. The net effect is to increase consumption, leaving less water for in-stream uses or groundwater recharge.

New York Times articles published May 19th  and June 6th, and a May 28th blog post by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) discuss the drought in the Great Plains and the decline of the Ogallala aquifer. All three reference the well-known and counter-intuitive relationship between increased irrigation efficiency and water consumption.

The June 6th New York Times article begins: “Millions of dollars in farm subsidies for irrigation equipment aimed at water conservation have led to more water use, not less, threatening vulnerable aquifers and streams.”  The “subsidies” to which reporter Ron Nixon refers are cost-share payments from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The implication is that EQIP cost-share payments to farmers are “threatening vulnerable aquifers and streams.” However, causality is complex terrain and water rights law, high commodity prices and low natural gas prices have played a significant role in land use, crop and pumping decisions.

Craig Cox’s May 28 post on the Environmental Working Groups’ AgMag blog, states: “The data make it clear that the nation’s critical and growing water problems cannot be solved unless agriculture leaves more water in streams and aquifers, and EQIP remains the single most important tool to address that problem.” The idea that EQIP can be used to help address the water problem is based on amending EQIP authorities to prohibit farmers from using “saved water” for the life of the cost-shared practice.

The farm bill proposal by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), (which was not considered by the House) and the Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-New Mexico) EQIP amendment, which was not adopted in the Senate version of the Farm Bill, both seek to help solve the declining aquifer or reduced stream flow problem associated with irrigation by requiring that “any associated water savings remain in the original source of such water for the useful life of the practice.”

The Blumenauer bill and the Udall amendment also authorize the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to provide EQIP payments for “conversion of the agricultural operation to the production of less water-intensive agricultural commodities or dryland farming.” The amendments to EQIP are silent on how payments for the conversion to dryland farming would be determined. Using cropland values from Kansas State University, the difference in irrigated and non-irrigated cropland prices in the Southwest part of Kansas is about $800 per acre. The issue of using EQIP funds to pay farmers for water rights related to conversion to dryland farming was raised in the 2008 Farm Bill. At that time, the Committees’ consensus was to refrain from getting involved with issues directly tied to state laws. There was also concern about the potential cost.

A 2013 paper by C.Y-Cynthia Lin and Lisa Pfeiffer, is referenced in both the June 6 New York Times article and the EWG post with respect to the link between EQIP payments and declining groundwater levels, but they do not mention the Lin and Pfeifer conclusion.

“To achieve conservation, increases in irrigation efficiency must be accompanied by corresponding decreases in the quantity of water that a user is allowed to extract, either through a decrease in the legal water right, a tax on water extraction, regulation of crop and fallow cycles, or through other measures. Any type of regulation, however, necessitates clear property rights and effective systems of reporting and enforcement, institutions that are scarce in the real world of groundwater management.”

The EQIP program has an important role to play in reducing withdrawals from the Ogallala, even without prohibiting farmers from withdrawing “saved water.” Using EQIP to fund conversion to dryland farming is problematic given the current demand for EQIP funds, budget realities, and more importantly the need for reforming existing state irrigation water withdrawal policy. Progress is slowly being made. The Ogallala states, for example, are beginning to make changes to water withdrawal laws. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has an Ogallala initiative promoting irrigation efficiency. In the Texas Panhandle, a small group of farmers is testing innovative technologies to reduce irrigation needs.

However, as Lin and Pfeifer concluded, a necessary condition for concrete progress is a heavy lift; states, irrigation districts and farmers must find ways to constrain irrigation withdrawals.

Here are two other papers that provide perspectives on irrigation and related water issues:
“The allocative efficiency and conservation potential of water laws encouraging investments in on-farm irrigation technology,” authored by Ray Huffacker and Norman Whittlesey, both of Washington State University; published in 2000 in the Journal of Agricultural Economics.

“Conserving the Ogallala Aquifer: Efficiency, Equity and Moral Motives,” by Jeffrey M. Peterson, Thomas L. Marsh and Jeffrey R. Williams, all of Kansas State University; published in 2003 in Choices magazine. 

Doug Lawrence Doug Lawrence (
President, Blackwoods Group LLC
View more posts by Doug Lawrence

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.