Groups urge NRCS: Keep climate-smart irrigation

Conservation and trade groups, including the Irrigation Association, have urged NRCS to keep key irrigation practices on the Climate-Smart List, highlighting broader climate benefits.
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A coalition of organizations, including the Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia, have requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service maintain and simplify key irrigation practices on the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Mitigation Activities List for Fiscal Year 2025.  

The coalition submitted a letter, addressed to Chief Terry Cosby of the NRCS Climate Office, underscoring the significant climate mitigation benefits of these irrigation practices beyond mere energy use reductions. 

“In addition to delivering climate smart benefits, irrigation upgrades improve water quality, and offer more precise water management options that can create more water system flexibility, drought resilience, and economic options for producers. As outlined in NRCS’ Western Water and Working Lands Framework, it will be critical to protect surface water availability and sustain agricultural productivity in the face of unprecedented water scarcity challenges driven by climate change,” reads the letter. 

The coalition’s submission responds to NRCS’s solicitation for comments on the CSAF List and highlights the scientific basis for the climate-smart benefits of specific irrigation practices.  

The letter acknowledges the inclusion of irrigation practices 430 (irrigation pipeline), 441 (microirrigation), 442 (sprinkler system) and 533 (pumping plant) in the FY 2024 CSAF List under the Inflation Reduction Act. However, the coalition calls for the removal of the restrictive “used to reduce energy use” qualifier, arguing that this limitation fails to recognize the broader climate benefits beyond energy use reductions associated with these practices. 

According to the letter, peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated that converting gravity-fed irrigation systems to pressurized pipe systems significantly reduces nitrous oxide and methane emissions. These greenhouse gases are critical climate-smart parameters under the IRA. The coalition’s letter cites evidence showing that pressurized irrigation systems, which provide more frequent and targeted watering of crop roots, reduce GHG emissions by moderating soil wetting and drying cycles that increase nitrous oxide emissions and reducing soil anoxic conditions that produce methane. Additionally, these systems improve nitrogen uptake by plants, reducing both direct and indirect nitrous oxide emissions. 

It’s important to maintain these practices on the CSAF List, says Nathan Bowen, vice president of advocacy and public affairs for the Irrigation Association. 

“Ensuring that NRCS recognizes the important climate benefits associated with efficient irrigation practices is vital for advancing climate-smart agriculture,” says Bowen. “The scientific evidence is clear: these practices offer significant climate mitigation benefits beyond energy savings. By recognizing and supporting these benefits, NRCS can help farmers and conservationists effectively address climate change.” 

The letter also highlights the practical benefits of irrigation upgrades, such as improved water quality, increased water system flexibility, enhanced drought resilience and economic benefits for producers. The coalition’s letter stresses the need for a broader CSAF List to ensure that IRA funds are effectively utilized to support climate-smart practices and that robust scientific analysis continues to improve the overall impact of these practices. 

“Our goal is to ensure that the funding and support for these practices reflect their full range of benefits,” says Bowen. “By doing so, we can create a more sustainable and resilient agricultural sector that meets the challenges of climate change head-on.” 

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