Water Conservation in Irrigated Agriculture: Trends and Challenges in the Face of Emerging Demands
by Glenn Schaible
and Marcel Aillery
Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-99) 67 pp, September 2012
What Is the Issue?
Population and economic growth, changing social values about the
importance of water quality and the environment, and Native
American water-right claims will continue to drive growing U.S.
demand for water resources. Expansion of the U.S. energy sector is
expected to further increase regional demands for water. At the
same time, projected climate change-through warming temperatures,
shifting precipitation patterns, and reduced snowpack-is expected
to reduce water supplies and increase water demand across much of
These trends are placing greater pressure on existing water
allocations, heightening the importance of water management and
conservation for the sustainability of irrigated agriculture. How
well irrigated agriculture adapts to growing constraints on water,
particularly by increasing its water-use efficiency, will directly
affect the economic health and sustainability of the sector.
What Did the Study Find?
Irrigated agriculture, which accounts for 80-90 percent of
consumptive water use in the United States, represents a
significant share of the value of U.S. agricultural
• Based on the 2007 Census of Agriculture, irrigated farms
accounted for roughly 40 percent ($118.5 billion) of the value of
U.S. agricultural production; nationwide, the average value of
production for an irrigated farm was more than three times the
average value for a dryland farm.
• Irrigated farms accounted for 54.5 percent ($78.3 billion) of
the value of all crop products sold and contributed to the farm
value of livestock and poultry production through animal forage and
feed production. Livestock/poultry products accounted for roughly a
third of market sales for irrigated farms and 63 percent for
nonirrigated (dryland) farms. Irrigated forage and feed production
contributed to the livestock/poultry market sales for both
irrigated and nonirrigated farm types.
• Nearly 57 million acres were irrigated across the United States
in 2007, or 7.5 percent of all cropland and pastureland. Roughly
three-quarters of U.S. irrigated agriculture occurred in the 17
Western States, although irrigation has been expanding in the more
humid Eastern States.
• Based on the 2008 Farm and Ranch Irrigation Survey (a followup
to the 2007 Census of Agriculture), irrigated agriculture across
the Western States applied 74 million acre-feet (24 trillion
gallons) of water for crop production, with 52 percent originating
from surface-water sources and 48 percent pumped from wells that
draw from local and regional aquifers.
Demands on agricultural water supplies are likely to increase over
time as alternative nonfarm uses of water continue to grow.
Potential Native American water-right claims have been estimated at
nearly 46 million acre-feet annually and could impact the
distribution and cost of irrigation water in the West. For many
States, the scope of water demands for the environment have
expanded from a minimum instream flow to an "environmental-flows"
standard (i.e., a concept requiring water to meet the needs for
water quality, but to also rehabilitate ecosystem habitats).
Energy-sector growth is expected to significantly increase water
demands for an expanding biofuels sector, utility-scale development
of solar power, innovation in thermoelectric generating capacity,
and commercial oil-shale and deep shale natural gas development.
Expansion in these competing water demands, especially with water
supply/demand impacts expected with climate change, presents new
challenges for agricultural water use and conservation,
particularly in the arid Western States.
While substantial technological innovation has increased the
efficiency of irrigated agriculture over the past several decades,
significant potential exists for continued improvement. At least
half of irrigated cropland acreage across the United States is
still irrigated with less efficient, traditional irrigation
application systems. In addition, most irrigators do not make use
of the more efficient onfarm water-management practices that
conserve the most water.
• Irrigators continue to make significant investments in new and
improved irrigation systems. Approximately $2.15 billion was
invested in irrigation systems in 2008, a 92-percent increase over
investments for 2003.
• Most onfarm irrigation investment is financed privately-less
than 10 percent of farms reported financing irrigation improvements
in 2008 through public financial assistance programs. Nearly 57
percent of the farms that received financial assistance for
irrigation technology adoption did so through USDA's primary
working lands conservation program-the Environmental Quality
Incentives Program (EQIP). Irrigated farms participating in EQIP,
however, represented only about 4 percent of all farms making
irrigation investments in 2008.
• Over time, EQIP funding has had an important impact on
irrigation investments, amounting to $1.4 billion from 2004 through
2010. Nationally, irrigation practices accounted for roughly a
quarter of total EQIP funding obligations ($5.7 billion) during
• Less than 10 percent of irrigated farms use advanced onfarm
water management decision tools, such as soil- or plant-moisture
sensing devices, commercial irrigation-scheduling services, or
computer-based crop-growth simulation models. The sustainability of
irrigated agriculture may depend partly on the willingness and
ability of producers to adopt irrigation "production systems" that
more effectively integrate improved water management practices with
efficient irrigation application systems.
Agricultural water conservation is both a farm and basin-level
resource conservation issue. Integrating the use of improved onfarm
irrigation efficiency with State and Federal watershed
water-management tools (e.g., conserved water rights, drought water
banks, option and contingent water markets, reservoir management,
irrigated acreage and groundwater pumping restrictions, and
irrigated acreage retirement) encourages producers to recognize and
respond to differing values of water across competing uses,
improving the potential for sustainable irrigation while
facilitating water reallocation to other uses.
How Was the Study Conducted?
This report draws on several USDA agricultural production and
water-use analyses and surveys, as well as an extensive literature
review, to describe the U.S. irrigated agriculture sector, existing
and emerging water demands, trends in water-use efficiency in
irrigated agriculture, and funding levels (private and public) for
farm-level irrigation investments. USDA's Censuses of Agriculture
(1982-2007) and Farm and Ranch Irrigation Surveys (FRIS) for
1984-2008, together with the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS)
water-use summaries, were used to assess the demand for U.S. water
resources and the importance of irrigation to U.S.
agriculture-where it occurs, what it produces, how much water
agriculture uses, the water sources supplying irrigation, and the
costs of irrigation. FRIS data are also used to analyze the
efficiency of irrigated agriculture as of 2008 to demonstrate the
potential for continued agricultural water conservation as
producers more effectively integrate onfarm and off-farm water
management practices with improved irrigation production systems.
USDA's FRIS and conservation program contract data are used to
examine the current status of private and public investments in