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Summary Irrigation has played a vital role in the history of the United States, a role that extends far beyond the production of food and fiber. Irrigation was a driving force in the settlement of the American West. Its success spawned a culture and sparked an evolution of technology and myriad supporting institutions. These institutions have continued to support irrigation at great benefit to the nation, although not without costs to other water users, the environment, and social programs. The United States is now facing a time of changing public values and new demands, however, and irrigators feel a combination of pressures today unlike any time in the past. The availability of water has been, and is likely to remain, the principal determinant of the status of irrigation in the western United States and is becoming increasingly important to irrigation in eastern states as well. But the cost of water and demands on the resource are changing rapidly. The special place of irrigation in American society is a result of a long and complex history that involves federal policies, individual entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, natural disasters, economics, and trading patterns. The remarkable development of irrigation was fueled by an enormous level of federal involve- ment, including engineering and financial assistance, but this role has diminished greatly in recent years. Growth no longer needs encouragement the West is the most rapidly urbanizing part of the nation. And the role of agriculture in the nation's economy has changed. In 1900, 4 in 10 workers were engaged in farming; today, it is closer to 3 in 100. At the same time, some of the nation's priorities have shifted, including an increased concern for environmental issues, the need to compete in an increasingly global economy, and pressures from population growth and urbanization. Parks, nurseries, recreation areas, land 1
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2 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION soaping, lawns, and golf courses have become bona fide users of large quantities of water. Instream uses of water such as fishing, boating, fulfillment of treaty obligations with American Indians, and preservation of fish and wildlife habitat also have greater standing. The underlying premise of this study is that given increasing competition for water supplies, changes in how water is managed, allocated, and valued are inevitable. Irrigation must be able to adapt to these conditions. Some of the pressures that affect the nature of change include: continue. · Water costs are rising, as is demand for water, and both trends are likely to · As the largest and most economically marginal user of water in the many water-scarce areas, irrigated agriculture is particularly vulnerable to changing water availability. · The viability of farming on millions of irrigated acres is threatened by problems such as salinization of soils and dependence on nonrenewable water supplies. · The quality of irrigation drainage or return flows often is sufficiently impaired as to limit the future reuse of that water for other purposes, including environmental uses. · Irrigation systems and management will continue to evolve, moving to- ward advanced technologies that provide better water control. · The ability of states, Indian tribes, and individual water users to market water will be central to increasing the flexibility of water allocation, whether for irrigation or nonirrigation uses, and thus is key to the future of irrigation in the United States. THE CULTURE OF IRRIGATION At one level, irrigation is simply the application of water to grow plants. At another level, it is the basis for an economy and a way of life. Irrigation made possible the highly intensive settlement of the western United States that other- wise would not readily support large populations. It has transformed the land- scape, literally and figuratively. Thus there is a somewhat intangible, subjective dimension of irrigation that must be understood as we find ways to adapt and prepare for the future the context in which change must occur, or what this report has called the "culture of irrigation." Culture, as used here, refers to the "ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a given people in a given period." Irrigation is a distinctive activity, one with its own history, own governmental policies, institutions, practices, and, historically, its own communities. The federal government facilitated this culture based on the central idea that a society and an economy could be built on irrigated agriculture as its base. It was a bold idea, ideally suited for the era of western expansion and
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SUMMARY 3 exploitation, and it met with widespread support. The irrigation culture viewed itself as serving a larger national interest as well as providing a means of subsis- tence in an arid environment. In today's increasingly urbanized society, evidence of a culture of irrigation is much less apparent, and other critical issues have emerged as priorities. But this traditional irrigation culture remains vibrant in many rural areas, and it con- tinues to support economies. It is, however, a culture somewhat in retreat and on the defensive. Instead of a national symbol of progress and growth, irrigation is criticized for the pollution it produces and the subsidies that sustain it. The nation once supported the subsidization of agriculture (particularly irrigated agriculture) as a way of promoting the national interest by using it to encourage settlement of the West and by stabilizing farmers' incomes and crop prices. It was also a way to provide a low cost supply of food and fiber to U.S. consumers. This is changing, however, and to compete effectively in the future, irrigators must change in ways that help overcome negative perceptions. Cultural concerns influence irrigation systems and policies across the nation, but they have been neglected in scientific research and policy analysis. It would be an error to assess irrigation problems today without studying the full record of the experiences that created them and that might lead beyond them. Historical and cultural studies shed light on the knowledge systems of the present; they remind us that modern irrigation systems reflect complex social, economic, insti- tutional, and technological influences. Understanding irrigation in its cultural context can help identify new approaches to problem-solving, combining new technologies and business practices with traditional technologies and approaches, as necessary, to respond to changing local, national, and global situations. FORCES OF CHANGE AND RESPONSES The principal determinants of the profitability of irrigated agriculture and, therefore, its future are: the overall state of the agricultural economy and markets for agricultural products; the benefits of irrigated farming relative to dryland farming (e.g., consistent high quality production); the cost and availability of water; pricing policy and the regulatory structure; available technology and man- agement skills; the cost of other agricultural inputs such as labor, capital, and energy; environmental concerns and regulations; and the institutions that influ- ence how water is used. One method for anticipating the future of irrigation in the face of competing demands is to identify the forces of change that are affecting irrigators today and examine reactions to these forces. Key forces of change are competition over water supplies, changing economic conditions, changing values and policy objec- tives, and increasing environmental concerns. These forces can be addressed by actions at various levels, ranging from individual farms to the state, federal, and tribal institutions. Responses can take many forms, including developments in
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4 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION science, technology, and management and institutional and policy reforms. There is no clear delineation among these issues. In fact, there is extensive overlap and feedback among the forces of change and the responses to that change. In terms of science and technology, responses have shifted away from con- struction of large-scale public works dams and water delivery systems toward improved on-farm irrigation systems that tend to reduce the total quantity of water that must be diverted from a stream for delivery to the farm. There is a trend toward adoption of microirrigation systems that apply water at a slow, carefully calibrated rate just below the soil surface. Researchers are also working to develop plant varieties that are better adapted to water stress. Although such efforts may help reduce the need for irrigation in the future, dramatic water savings from genetic engineering do not appear imminent. From an institutional perspective, responses are occurring at a variety of levels. Federal policies are in a period of transition. The focus of federal policies affecting water use has shifted sharply over the past 25 years, from development of dams and other facilities to better use and management of existing facilities, diminishing subsidies, and increased environmental protection. At the same time, shrinking federal budgets make the future role of environmental programs and conservation subsidies (e.g., the conservation reserve program, which pro- vides payments to farmers for leaving highly credible land unplanted) increas- ingly uncertain. States, which set the rules governing allocation of water re- sources within their boundaries, are beginning to adopt changes in water laws and related review processes to encourage and facilitate voluntary transfers of water and water rights. The Bureau of Reclamation also has made efforts to accommo- date voluntary transfers of Reclamation-supplied water. Even so, western water law with its emphasis on "use it or lose it" remains in need of revision to provide incentives for more efficient water use. Where economic incentives are lacking, voluntary conservation efforts may not be sufficient. Consequently, some states and local water districts are turning to regulatory approaches. In some instances, state law also is changing to reflect increased interest in protect- ing instream uses of water. In many areas, local, state, tribal, and federal institu- tions have turned to watershed approaches to address changing water demands. These watershed approaches offer important opportunities for irrigation interests to negotiate and resolve issues in a more integrated way. EXAMPLES OF CHANGE AND RESPONSES Although it is possible to describe the nature of irrigation and the issues with which irrigators and the industry must contend in general terms, it is more diffi- cult to speak about the future without looking at irrigation as actually practiced in different regions. For example, while competition for water supplies and policies to protect environmental resources are issues affecting irrigation nationwide, the
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SUMMARY s specifics of water supply problems and environmental restrictions are quite dif- ferent in the Pacific Northwest than in the Texas High Plains. Selected case studies are presented in Chapter 5 to illustrate these variations in problems and responses in four regions: the Great Plains, California, the Pa- cific Northwest, and Florida. Each presents different physical patterns, cultural patterns, functional economic relations, and jurisdictional relations. Physical differences are manifest in climate, hydrology, topography, and soils which in turn influence certain irrigation practices, technology choices, public policy, and investments. Cultural differences affect choices of technologies and practices, the structure and philosophy of local and regional institutions, and responses to environmental regulation and changing public policy. Functional relations are the interconnections that shape the economic geography of the region, including factors such as local, regional, and global markets; labor supplies; availability of financial capital; and types of crops grown and related subsidy programs. Simi- larly, jurisdictional relations the political and administrative entities with im- pact in the region also affect how irrigation develops, what constraints apply, the context for solving environmental problems, and access to information, tech- nical assistance, and technology. FUTURE DIRECTIONS No one can say with any degree of certainty how irrigated agriculture will change in the near or far term. We can, however, assert with considerable confidence that it will change. Few companies produce the same product in the same way they did 50 years ago, and agriculture is no exception. Irrigation attained its present stature because it was part of the nation's vision of how best to meet the needs of its citizenry. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the judgments and values that guided past decisionmakers, it is impossible not to admire the dedication with which that vision was put into action. The hope is that the current generation of decisionmakers and citizens can be as clear in their goals and as effective in designing a course to achieve them. This committee has examined many factors that may influence the future of irrigation. These factors especially competition for water; concerns over envi- ronmental impacts, including the potential impacts of climate change; the expan- sion of urban land uses, the globalization of the U.S. economy; the shifting roles of federal and state governments; and tribal economic development will effect irrigation differently in different regions. Overall, the availability and cost of water are likely to remain the principal determinants of the extent of irrigation in the western United States; they are becoming increasingly important influences in the southern and eastern United States as well. From discussions with a wide range of people involved in irrigation and water use, field visits, study, and debate, the committee concludes): · Irrigation will continue to play an important role in the United States over
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6 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION the next 25 years, although certainly there will be changes in its character, meth- ods, and scope. It is likely that irrigated acreage will decline overall, but the value of irrigated production will remain about the same because of shifts to higher-value crops. · Given changing societal values and increasing competition for water, the amount of water dedicated to agricultural irrigation will decline. The availability and cost of water to the farmer are likely to remain the principal determinants of the extent of irrigation in the western United States; these factors are becoming increasingly important influences in the southern and eastern states as well. · The economic forces driving irrigated agriculture increasingly will be deter- mined by our ability to compete in global markets. This shift toward globalization, combined with reductions in protection and support for individual farmers, means that farmers will have to deal with increased levels of risk and uncertainty. · The structure of irrigated agriculture will continue to shift in favor of large, well-financed, integrated, and diversified farm operations. Smaller, under-fi- nanced operations and those with less skilled managers will tend to decline. · Many important federal, state, and local policies and institutions affecting irrigation were established in a different era, and they no longer meet contempo- rary societal needs. Changes in these policies and institutions are occurring to reflect changing economies, emerging values, and shifting policy priorities. Thus, for example, the Bureau of Reclamation is moving from a project construction agency to a water management agency. Innovation and flexibility will be needed, especially as direct federal support continues to diminish. · In the past, the term irrigation effectively meant irrigation for agriculture. But the nature of irrigation has changed dramatically in the past two decades and will continue to change. Turf irrigation is now an important part of the irrigation industry, and irrigation for urban landscaping and golf courses in particular will continue to expand as urban populations increase. · Advances in irrigation technology are necessary if both agricultural and turf irrigation are going to adapt to changing demands and changing supplies. The irrigation industry will need to play a larger role in technology development and dissemination as the federal government trims its support for these activities. · Some portion of the water now in agricultural use will over time be shifted to satisfy environmental goals. In addition, there will be continued pressure to reduce environmental problems associated with irrigation, both agricultural and turf. · Irrigation emerged as an individual and collective effort at the watershed level, and in many important respects its future will be determined in the water- shed. The growth of locally driven watershed activities reflects a promising trend in water management. Irrigation, to use a hydrologic metaphor, is at a watershed divide a time in history where change is imminent. Irrigated agriculture must evolve to compete
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SUMMARY 7 in a new era. It must adopt more efficient technologies and management strate- gies, develop more flexible institutional arrangements, and work cooperatively with other water users to allocate limited water resources equitably. Recom- mendations outlining various actions that might be undertaken at the federal, state, tribal, or local levels are discussed in detail in Chapter 6. In general, the recommendations address improved institutional arrangements, research and de- velopment of irrigation technologies and techniques, environmental protection, and the role of education and extension in disseminating innovation widely throughout the irrigation community. For example, the report discusses the need for the education and extension system to evolve to help farmers gain the skills needed to compete in an increasingly globalized economy. It notes that states will need to establish improved systems to facilitate the voluntary transfer of water among users. It also recommends that environmental regulation be flexible enough to deal with specific problems and locations, and involve incentive-based problems, investment credits, and similar tools that can enhance local- and re- gional-level environmental problem-solving. There will continue to be an important role for the federal government in the future of irrigation, but this role, and the measures used to implement it, is changing. Federal support for research and development of new irrigation tech- nologies will remain important, but with the continuing pressure to reduce federal expenditures, more leadership and funding for research and development will have to come from the private sector and through partnerships between irrigators, the private sector, and state and federal researchers. The federal government has important trust responsibilities in resolving the water rights of Indian tribes, and federal funding and commitment to this process is necessary to resolve unsettled tribal claims and reduce tensions over the future of tribal irrigation and the availability of tribal water, whether through transfers or other arrangements, for use by irrigators or other users. Irrigation has served this nation well and will continue to provide benefits- food, fiber, and the support of rural communities. To continue in a new era, however, irrigation must evolve. Although the committee does not foresee ex- plosive changes on the horizon, certainly the future will bring surprises, some perhaps dramatic. It is critical that the same resourcefulness that has made irrigation such an important economic and cultural activity over the past 100 years be brought to bear in the future. NOTE 1. More detailed discussions of these conclusions, including implications for the future direc- tion of irrigation, appear in Chapter 6.
Representative terms from entire chapter: