Readiness for changes in irrigation patterns

Shifting irrigation patterns driven by climate change and water availability challenges are transforming agriculture, creating the need for innovative solutions and strong institutions to support water users.
BY RENATA RIMŠAITĖ
Readiness-for-changes-in-irrigation-patterns

Water is a critical input in agriculture, reducing uncertainty in ensuring food and nutrition security and meeting fuel and clothing needs. Frequent irrigation during crop growing seasons has been especially important in regions with more arid climate conditions that characterize a large portion of the western United States. Severe drought events including flash droughts have become more common due to climate change, even in agricultural regions that have been largely dependent on rainfall.  

Agricultural production regions that used to rely on precipitation (e.g., Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky) have started to use more surface water and groundwater to irrigate crops during the growing season as irrigation becomes more prolific in the East. At the same time, agricultural regions that used to rely on water availability for irrigation are becoming more constrained due to depleting groundwater levels (e.g., southern High Plains region), urban development growth (e.g., Colorado), as well as new regulatory policies seeking to address long-term water availability concerns (e.g., California). Additionally, some regions have increased water use for irrigation due to the expansion of crop production that depends on large amounts of water during the growing season (e.g., rice in the lower Mississippi River Valley).  

Shifts in irrigation patterns are expected to continue, which will likely test local readiness for changes in agricultural water management. This will have an impact on producers as well as those who have a role in or are affected by producers’ decision-making, such as dealers, retailers, lenders, investors, government agents and other water users. Innovative tools capable of adapting to changing local hydrology needs are necessary to avoid increasing socioeconomic disparity and equity concerns in rural regions. Emerging challenges present opportunities for key public and private players in the agricultural space to focus on pathways toward innovative solutions.  

For instance, from the sustainable water governance perspective, areas that are expected to see large increases in supplemental irrigation lack strong regulatory frameworks and flexible policy designs. Establishing robust water institutions is essential to prevent potential water shortages and conflicts among water users with a diverse range of needs. s another example, the financial community, in addition to focusing on water supply-side solutions and significant investments in irrigation and drainage systems, has an opportunity to begin incentivizing sustainable irrigation practices.  

Despite various challenges around emerging shifts in irrigation, important progress has been made in science, technological innovation, policy and management practices. There is significant interest in peer-to-peer learning among practitioners and different programs are being developed because of bottom-up initiatives. New partnerships and collaborations are emerging, focusing on better understanding water risk and seeking to meet different sustainability and stewardship goals. These partnerships often seek to comprise members from different sectors, including practitioners, government officials, researchers, environmental nonprofits, private companies and investors. Such initiatives allow connecting separate but very important puzzle pieces and give opportunities to have better data and better-understood perspectives.

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