The ag irrigation efficiency paradox

A visit to Santo Domingo Pueblo yesterday morning to look at irrigation efficiency work funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and others offered a nice demonstration of the paradox of ag water conservation. From my story (behind a Google survey wall, sorry):

By using the pueblo’s irrigation supplies more efficiently, the project, funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, has allowed a resurgence in the traditionally agricultural community. “There’s more people farming again,” former pueblo Gov. Everett F. Chavez told Bureau Commissioner Mike Connor during a morning tour.

In other words, the water conserved is supporting an expansion of farming rather than, as is often assumed in public discussions of ag water savings, to reduce consumption. C.-Y. Cynthia Lin at UC Davis recently posted an interesting discussion of research into water conservation efforts in western Kansas:

In response to rapid depletion of the High Plains Aquifer, the state subsidized a widespread conversion to more efficient irrigation technology in the late 1990s through mid-2000s. Programs paid up to 75 percent of the cost of upgrading or installing new irrigation technology – primarily “dropped nozzles,” which attach to center-pivot irrigators and reduce the amount of water lost to evaporation and drift.

But after making the shift to dropped nozzles, farmers ended up applying more groundwater to fields – completely negating the conservation intent.

Rather than reducing consumption, many farmers used their efficiency “savings” to expand irrigation into poorer soils or grow thirstier higher-value crops such as corn, alfalfa and soybeans. Greater irrigation efficiency increased overall water use.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is a bad thing. More crop per drop makes sense. But it’s not what one might expect.


  1. Another neat example. Thanks! Subsidizing irrigation efficiency improvements is politically and rhetorically easy to sell. There are many benefits from increasing water use efficiency. But by itself, water conservation might not be one of them.

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