Searching for agricultural water management solutions

Economy | Fall 2023
By Renata Rimšaitė, PhD

In many regions within the United States and globally, long-term agricultural water availability continues to be a rapidly rising concern. As the pressures on water resources are rising, there is growing interest in imposing stronger limits on agricultural water use and, simultaneously, finding flexible solutions that could adapt to changing local conditions and needs. Emerging thoughtful collaborations, including private-public partnerships, bring innovation and optimism, reminding us that focusing on listening and trust-building remains key to success. While clear pathways toward sustainable agricultural water management solutions are still lacking, the search for them in the near future is expected to grow. This serves as a reminder to review different approaches used to help advance water conservation goals in agriculture.

In the U.S., regulatory water conservation approaches are generally set by local or state governments to limit water withdrawals. Such restrictions can prevent farmers from being able to apply enough water to meet the irrigation requirements of their crops. Examples of such mandates include strict controls on water volume extractions, well-spacing requirements, moratoria on irrigation wells or irrigated land development, as well as requesting the installation of flow meters on irrigation wells and submitting water use reports for compliance verification.


Emerging thoughtful collaborations, including private-public partnerships, bring innovation and optimism, reminding us that focusing on listening and trust-building remains key to success.


In the U.S., regulatory water conservation approaches are generally set by local or state governments to limit water withdrawals. Such restrictions can prevent farmers from being able to apply enough water to meet the irrigation requirements of their crops. Examples of such mandates include strict controls on water volume extractions, well-spacing requirements, moratoria on irrigation wells or irrigated land development, as well as requesting the installation of flow meters on irrigation wells and submitting water use reports for compliance verification.

Government-imposed mandates tend to be more effective when they are designed to address local hydrology needs and are combined with incentive-based water management tools that add more flexibility and adaptability to climate-related production risks. Incentive-based management can help growers comply with regulatory frameworks and make production decisions that reduce drought risk, conserve water and provide sustainable economic returns so agricultural practices can be passed down to future generations. General examples of these tools include designs for water transfers and environmental credits, as well as cost-share programs for irrigation technologies or water management methods.

For example, some local Natural Resources Districts in Nebraska use their authority to impose a groundwater allocation system, which limits groundwater pumping to a specified volume over a specified multiyear period (e.g., 60 inches over five years), but they also provide various frameworks for flexible management of unused allocation (e.g., formal and informal groundwater transfers, carryover of leftover allocations). In some cases, regulatory tools can be more effective when they start as bottom-up voluntarily organized initiatives (e.g., Local Enhanced Management Areas in Kansas were organized by farmers willing to reduce their groundwater extraction amounts).

Different groups of stakeholders, including farmers, corporations, policymakers and nongovernmental agencies often prefer approaches that can be adaptable to local conditions over strict regulatory approaches or large and costly infrastructure projects. Growers, in particular, gravitate toward having more trust in innovative approaches and technology adoption when the potential economic losses are known to be minimal from the start (e.g., programs designed to learn from their peers and neighbors, like Texas Alliance for Water Conservation, the Water Technology Farms in Kansas or the Testing Ag Performance Solutions program which started in Nebraska and scaled across multiple states). Thus, working toward voluntary behavior change in agricultural water management can be more successful when mechanisms designed to enable it are free of high upfront costs, hidden fees or other unexpected risks.

Renata Rimšaitė, PhD, is a senior program manager for the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska. Views or opinions expressed in this column do not represent her employer.
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