Click for next page ( 170


The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 169
6 Future Directions Irrigation, to use a hydrological metaphor, is at a watershed divide. The use of specially provided water enables the production of food, fiber, and landscaping at levels and in places that would not otherwise be possible. But in recent years the public has grown increasingly concerned about the economic and environmental costs of irrigation. Some people see the dedication of a substantial portion of available water supplies to irrigation as inequitable and inefficient. This is espe- cially true in the more arid regions of the country where water supplies are limited and competition from other water users is increasing. In the face of ever larger federal budget deficits, the financial costs of providing support to irrigation also loom large. In addition, the environmental consequences of irrigation measured in terms of water diversions and consumption, impacts on water quality, and effects on aquatic, plant, and wildlife habitats are increasingly being questioned. Irrigation is a means to an end. It is a valuable tool, rooted in ancient tradition, that has proven to be dynamic and flexible. To a considerable extent, the future of irrigation depends on our ability to find ways to use this tool in a manner that continues to provide important benefits but with fewer and more acceptable environmental and economic costs. Over the course of this study, the committee has examined many factors that may affect the future of irrigation. These factors competition for water; con- cerns over environmental impacts, including the potential impacts of climate change; continued urbanization; conservative fiscal policy; the globalization of the United States economy; the shifting roles of federal and state governments; and tribal economic development will affect irrigation differently in different 169

OCR for page 169
170 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION regions. The following discussion summarizes this report's primary conclusions and suggests some likely future directions for irrigation in the United States. Conclusion 1 Irrigation will continue to play an important role in the United States over the next 25 years, although certainly there will be changes in its charac- ter, methods, and scope. It is likely that total irrigated acreage will decline, but the value of irrigated production will remain about the same because of shifts to higher-value crops. Total irrigated land in farms will decline from the 1994 total of 52 million acres, but it is expected that irrigation will continue to account for roughly the same percentage of the total value of agricultural production. Some important regional and farm-level variability underlie these predictions, however. For in- stance, regions dependent on declining ground water supplies are likely to expe- nence continued declines in irrigated acreage. A few regions will see continued growth of irngation, such as the lower Mississippi Valley and the Southeast. Overall, the total value of irrigated production may change little as yields in- crease and land is planted with higher-value crops. Successful farmers will adapt to increased water scarcity, new requirements to protect water quality and main- tain streamflows, reduced crop and water subsidies, and global agricultural mar- kets through innovation in technology, management, and marketing strategies. They also may have to adapt to higher energy costs and regional climatic changes associated with any global warming. Future Directions: Competition among water users is increasing. The impacts of large-scale irrigation in the arid West on the environment and the availability of water for other uses will command continuing, and perhaps increased, policy and manage- ment attention by the federal, state, and tribal governments. In the West, atten- tion will need to be focused on: physical and economic efficiency of irrigation systems and water use; implementation of American Indian water rights; the expansion and administration of water markets and transfers; environmental impacts; and institutional reform. By contrast, irrigation policies and institu- tions in humid regions are less well developed and will need to evolve to reflect contemporary and future irrigation issues. In short, policymakers will have to focus primarily on the quality of irrigation in the West and on the expansion of irrigation in the East. Conclusion 2 Given changing societal values and increasing competition for water,

OCR for page 169
FUTURE DIRECTIONS 171 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; they are becoming increasingly important influences in the southern and eastern states as well. Irrigation, particularly for agriculture, accounts for more withdrawals of water from surface and ground water sources and more consumption of water than any other use in the United States. With increasing pressures on limited water supplies, existing water uses necessarily are subjected to greater scrutiny. The use of water for agricultural irrigation and landscaping will continue to be vitally important, but as demand for water for other uses increases the need to allocate water to these uses will cause the amount of water dedicated to irrigation to decline. In particular, an increasing share of water supplies will be used for urban and environmental uses. This shift in water use already is occurring through multiple processes, in- cluding market-based transfers of water, more efficient use of water in irrigation, and changes in the operation of water storage and delivery facilities. Voluntary transfers are being used more frequently to meet new urban demands and, in fewer cases, to meet environmental demands. Increased efficiency is most com- mon where the irrigator's cost of water is increasing, or where historically avail- able supplies are reduced or irrigators are able to sell or otherwise profit from conserved water. Historically, conservation and technological innovation in the West lagged because of subsidies and institutional arrangements that kept the cost of water to farmers artificially low. From a technical and management perspec- tive, there are many ways in which irrigation can be made more efficient. There are few incentives at present, however, for water users to make the necessary investments in efficiency improvements. Similarly, there are many ways in which water storage and delivery systems can be operated to provide benefits to a larger number of uses and users. The incentives to make these changes have only recently begun to emerge. Overall, current institutions (e.g., state and fed- eral water allocation and pricing policies) are not ideally structured to ease the transition that must occur. In regard to water transfers, the committee found some confusion and mis- conceptions regarding the distinction between water withdrawals and water con- sumption. This can be a serious impediment to states and water agencies or districts striving to establish effective water conservation programs and realloca- tion strategies. Future Directions: New irrigation uses will be expected to meet increasingly strict standards of efficiency as a condition of use. Over time, existing uses will experience

OCR for page 169
72 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION increasing pressure in the form of prices, regulation, or incentives to increase irrigation efficiency as well. Historical practices that place too great a burden on available water supplies or water quality will be legally challenged as being "unreasonable" or wasteful. In response, states will need to clarify and revise laws governing the rights to control and/or transfer conserved water, including elements designed to foster mitigation of third-party effects. States will need to establish improved systems to facilitate the voluntary transfer of water. These systems should provide clear rules and well-defined processes by which transfers can occur and should incorporate measures for protecting other existing uses of water. Such measures would include criteria for quantifying the amount of water that can be transferred according to predefined standards regarding consumptive use and system delivery efficiencies. These criteria should not unduly limit incentives to transfer water rights. The transfer process may be managed at the local or regional level to more effectively address water user and third-party concerns, under rules established at the state level. Each state should carefully review its definition of water availability. It is essential that consumptive use of water be the unit of measure, as is the case, for instance, in California. Similarly, it is essential that accurate and consistent definitions of water conservation be developed to further the implementation of new technologies. Often, a new irrigation technology or practice that improves water use efficiency does not reduce consumptive use proportionally because drainage or leaching factors are not known or the conserved water is shifted to irrigate more acres. Overallocation caused by not accurately estimating and considering consumptive use of water will only increase the potentialfor water conflicts in the future. Conclusion 3 The economic forces driving irrigated agriculture increasingly will be determined by our ability to compete in global markets. This shift toward globalization, combined with reductions in protection and support for indi- vidual farmers, means that farmers will have to deal with increased levels of risk and uncertainty. With the negotiation of the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements, goods produced by irrigated agriculture increasingly will compete in an international market environment. Crop support prices will decrease (and perhaps end, if current proposals are enacted), and the costs of water supplies and environmental compliance will increase, forcing irrigated agriculture as a whole to move toward a more competitive structure. Producers of some crops, particularly higher-value crops such as vegetables, will face greater competition from foreign producers. Individual farmers will be more vulnerable to the vagaries of weather. Because of the higher capitalization necessary for irrigated farms, irrigators also are more vulnerable to fluctuations in crop and energy prices. In response, some of the production of high-value crops will shift to regions with more reliable water

OCR for page 169
FUTURE DIRECTIONS 173 supplies or other advantages. In general, the trend toward globalization will provide better market opportunities for some crops and increased competition for others. The potential economic rewards to irrigated agriculture may be signifi- cant, but economic risk from increased competition will also increase. Future Directions: To tap international markets, farmers will need different skills, communi- cation modes, and information. To help farmers compete effectively in these markets, educational systems including research and teaching, will need to evolve. These systems will need to be innovative in integrating, interpreting, and disseminating information; be more global in perspective; and recognize the intense pressures associated with operating irrigated farms in the modern eco- nomic and environmentally conscious context. In a highly competitive world market, it is critical that U.S. farmers are not put at a comparative disadvantage. Products imported to the United States should meet the same food safety and chemical use standards required of U.S. producers. The Department of Agriculture must be effective in enforcing interna- tional agreements. To improve marketing efficiency and reduce risk, federal and state agen- cies need to develop education programs and work with commodity groups on market promotion and risk reduction tools. Also, accurate market data are essentialfor U.S. producers to compete effectively, and the Department of Agri- culture will have a critical role in crop and market data development. Conclusion 4 The structure of irrigated agriculture will continue to shift in favor of large, well-financed, integrated, and diversified farm operations. Smaller, under-financed operations or those with less-skilled managers will tend to decline. The long-term trend toward vertical and horizontal integration in farm opera- tions will continue. The number of farmers declined from 6.45 million in 1920 to 1.93 million in 1992, a decline of 70 percent. With changes in U.S. farm policy leading to less federal control and subsidies along with a much greater emphasis of global market influences, the consolidation toward fewer and larger farms is expected to accelerate. Market risks are going to increase and irrigators will have incentives to increase in size to take advantage of economies of scale as well as to reduce risks by integrating into processing and marketing. Larger integrated farm operations will be better positioned to benefit from new technology and information. Concurrent with this trend toward larger well-financed and integrated farm operations, there will be growth in small specialty farms located near urban

OCR for page 169
174 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION markets. These farms will tend to be labor intensive but produce high-value crops for a niche market (e.g., organic foods, gourmet restaurants, fresh fruits, and vegetables delivered to the urban consumer). The total volume of production from these farms will be a very small percentage of total production from irri- gated agriculture. This suggests that the most vulnerable group of irrigators is the medium- sized farmers, especially those that are heavily leveraged. Thus the overall nature of irrigated farms will move toward a bimodal distribution: very large integrated irrigated farms producing the vast majority of output and very small specialty farms. Farmers who relied on depreciation to survive may lack the capital and borrowing capacity to overcome serious commodity price swings. Future Directions: Medium-sized farms will face particular challenges in the increasingly global, competitive environment. Some strategies that might enhance survival of these operations would involve cooperation among local or regional groups of farmers to (1) pool products to achieve greater market impacts, (2) arrange large-quantity purchasing of inputs for quantity discounts and (3) develop meth- ods to share the use of very expensive equipment and market information. This approach brings some loss of independence, but provides tools for survival in a more competitive marketplace. The precedent for this organization structure is seen in processing and marketing producer cooperatives. Technical assistance to develop and organize a formal farmer cooperative, as well as a strong finan- cial commitment from the farmers, is essential. Conclusion 5 Many important federal, state, and local policies and institutions affect- ing irrigation were established in a different era and they no longer meet contemporary 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. As discussed in Chapter 4, much of the policy and institutional development in support of irrigation occurred long ago. The basic principles of western water law governing the allocation and use of water from surface water resources were well established by the turn of the century. Federal reclamation policy took root shortly thereafter. Taken together, the purpose of much of federal and state water policy is intended to encourage irrigated agriculture in the arid western states.

OCR for page 169
FUTURE DIRECTIONS 175 The support of irrigation remains an important federal and state policy objec- tive, but it is no longer the driving public policy objective in the West. Indeed, it is not uncommon today for irrigation, as it has been historically practiced and supported, to conflict with other important policy objectives such as reducing the federal budget deficit, encouraging recreational uses of water, and protecting water quality. The result is a complex array of incentives and penalties that confuse irrigators and sometimes put government agencies and policies at odds with one another. In part, this confusion reflects a period of transition. The consumers of low- cost food and green lawns want the benefits of irrigation, but object to some of the costs both financial and environmental that must be paid. There is a clear need to revisit earlier policy and institutional choices in a search for ways that can continue to provide the desired benefits of irrigation but at more acceptable costs. Future Directions: Federal policies supporting the provision of below-cost water will gradu- ally change to better reflect the full costs of making wafer availablefor different users. The federal role in the supply of water for irrigation and other uses will decline through time as local and regional entities take over more of these re- sponsibilities. Uncertainties over water rights impede effective allocation of water re- sources. In the West, resolution of tribal water rights claims and rights to market water for off-reservation use would remove a major source of uncertainty. The federal government, in the continuing exercise of its trust responsibility to Indian tribes, will be challenged to commit significant attention to settling tribal claims to water and helping the tribes realize the benefits of their water rights. Federal requirements related to such things as protection of endangered species and water quality will continue, but the means by which these objectives will be pursued will shift to allow more;flexibility in the regulatory programs, to encourage the use of incentives and market-based approaches, and to engage more local, regional, and state participation in their achievement. States will continue to revise and amend water allocation law in a manner that emphasizes more efficient use of water to accomplish beneficial purposes, supports a broad range of water uses including instream and other environmen- tal uses, and broadens the authorities of irrigation districts to include other water-based interests within the district areas. Conclusion 6 In the past, the term "irrigation" effectively meant irrigation for agri- culture. But the nature of irrigation has changed dramatically in the past

OCR for page 169
176 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION two decades and will continue to change. Turf irrigation is now an impor- tant part of the irrigation industry, and irrigation for urban landscaping and golf courses in particular will continue to expand as urban populations increase. Urban land area will continue to grow, and with them the demand for land- scaping, trees, lawns, and golf courses. Urban users typically can better afford the cost of water and other costs of irrigation, so they will continue to compete with agriculture for access to water supplies. Some policy changes may prove necessary to encourage efficient water use, such as tiered water pricing programs that charge higher prices for incremental increases in water use. As water costs rise, interest in the use of native or drought-tolerant plants and other landscaping techniques that require little supplemental water will be encouraged. Future Directions: Urban landscaping provides an important opportunity to develop and expand the use of water reuse systems or otherforms of wastewater reclamation. Experience to date in applying reclaimed water in the irrigation of parks, median strips, and golf courses suggests that treated wastewater can be used safely and effectively in these ways, at lower cost and with less demand on freshwater supplies. Intensive urban landscaping is becoming a significant source of ground water contamination, primarily as a result of the overapplication of pesticides and fertilizers. Research and increased awareness of these problems can bring about more effective requirements for controlling this pollution. Cities and ur- ban water districts will need to play a more active role in education and demon stration about appropriate landscape practices. Developments in water management for landscaping will have some appli- cations in agricultural irrigation, just as applications developed for agriculture have been adaptedfor landscape use. The landscape and agricultural irrigation sectors should work together to ensure that improvements in irrigation efficiency and water reuse have the broadest possible impact. Improved communication can be facilitated by the private sector as it develops and markets methods for advanced irrigation scheduling, nonpoint-source pollution control, and irriga tion technologies. Water prices remain low in many locations, but increased competition for urban water supplies will lead to higher prices in the future for all users. Urban water supply organizations increasingly should adopt rate structures intended to encourage more efficient use of water. Conclusion 7 Advances in irrigation technology are necessary if both agricultural and

OCR for page 169
FUTURE DIRECTIONS 177 turf irrigation are going to adapt to changing demands and changing sup- plies. 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. In both agriculture and turf irrigation, there has been a significant shift to- ward the use of sprinkler irrigation and microirrigation technologies. Surface irrigation is being modernized in most regions with the use of laser leveling of land and automated systems such as surge irrigation. Electronic controls and sensors improve the control and management of irrigation systems. The forces promoting the adoption of new technologies are the increasing costs of labor, energy, and water as well as limitations on water availability. Constraints to the adoption of more efficient technologies are the costs to purchase and install systems, the lack of management skills, and inadequate incentives. Often, a threshold level of capital and size is necessary to take advantage of technological advances. Advances in plant genetics may offer some possibility for reducing water requirements for some crops. To date, however, progress in this area has been limited. Future Directions: The pressures for greater efficiency will increase and will require the development and transfer of new technology. The federal government has sup- ported much of the research and development of new irrigation technologies. With the continuing need to reduce federal expenditures, more leadership and funding for this research will have to come from the private sector and through partnerships between irrigators, the private sector, and state and federal re- searchers. Manufacturers should increase their research efforts, and agriculture and turf irrigators should increase supportfor this research. In addition, irriga- tion districts and similar organizations should become more active in encourag- ing the testing and demonstration of new technologies and in educating irrigators to use cost-effective technologies. Conclusion 8 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 has numerous environmental effects, some negative and some posi- tive. For example, irrigation produces vegetation where it would not normally exist. In turn, that vegetation can provide aesthetic benefits, recreational oppor- tunities, and valuable wildlife habitat. Return flows from irrigated lands can help to maintain flows in some streams during periods in which natural flows would

OCR for page 169
178 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION be much lower. Storing streamflows in reservoirs during times of surplus allows the release of this water at times when it would not otherwise be available for environmental and recreational uses. On the other hand, irrigation degrades water quality and has significant water supply impacts. The storage and diversion of water for irrigation profoundly alter the natural hydrology of streams and the habitats of native plants and animals that depend on them. The application of large quantities of water to irrigated lands results in soil erosion and the sedimentation of streambeds and spawning gravels. In addition to sediments, salts and other constituents are leached from the soil and transported into rivers and streams. Some of these constituents, such as selenium, pose significant threats to fish and wildlife. Fertilizers and pesticides used in irrigated agriculture contaminate both surface water and ground water systems. In the past, federal and state laws have tended to exempt irrigation from legal responsibility for some of its adverse environmental effects. A prominent ex- ample is the explicit exemption from regulation of irrigation return flows under the Clean Water Act. There is growing public recognition, however, that agricul- ture, including irrigated agriculture, is a major source of water quality problems nationwide. To date, federal and state agencies have relied on demonstration projects and voluntary best management practices to address pollution caused by irrigation. Although nonregulatory approaches have brought some progress, stronger measures are likely to be needed to reduce water quality problems. Future Directions: The trend in environmental policy to regulate activities that affect endan- gered species, wetlands, water quality, and public health will continue, although it is likely to proceed at a slower pace than during the 1970s and 1980s. Given the diverse and variable nature of the environmental impacts of irrigation, fed- eral, state, tribal, and regional agencies should look for regulatory and manage- ment approaches that can be tailored to specific problems and locations. Incentive- based programs, investment credits, point- and nonpoint-source trading programs, and other mechanisms provide thisflexibility. The needfor local- and regional-level environmental problem solving is consistent with the emerging support for water- shed- and ecosystem-based initiatives. The availability and quality of water are limiting factors for irrigation and for ecosystems. Thus the future will inevitably bring opportunities for either conflict or cooperation between irrigation and environmental interests. Locally based programs for addressing environmental impacts, even those that employ incentives, require a high level of cooperation from stakeholders. Government agencies must participate as partners as well as regulators. In addition, pro- cesses to resolve these issues will require a high level of commitment and partici- pation on the part of irrigators and the organizations that support them.

OCR for page 169
FUTURE DIRECTIONS 179 Conclusion 9 Irrigation emerged as an individual and collective effort at the water- shed level, and in many important respects its future will be determined in the local watershed. Irrigation is greatly influenced by forces operating at the national and even global level but, at core, irrigation is a local activity. It was irrigation that made possible settlement of large portions of the arid western states, initially along creeks and rivers with adjacent bottomlands that could be readily provided with water. These small-scale, local efforts eventually evolved into large-scale, some- times inter-basin water development projects served by complex hydraulic infra- structures maintained and run by large bureaucracies. As a result, irrigation became more an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. In the process, irrigators became increasingly influenced by state and federal policy. As water- related problem solving returns increasingly to the state and regional level, often organized around watersheds, irrigation interests need to reintegrate their goals into these more local processes. We are generally enthusiastic about the reemergence of local initiatives in water matters. The now well-documented growth of watershed councils and other such entities reflects a potentially promising trend in water management. At the same time, watershed management poses challenges for existing institu- tions and agencies at the federal, state, and local levels whose jurisdictions and authorities are not necessarily designed to work within this kind of framework. Future Directions: Irrigators should become actively engaged in local watershed initiatives as a means by which accommodation of interests with those of others in the watershed may be reached. Often, watershed efforts are focused on changing the manner in which water is used. Irrigation is, in many instances, the dominant out-of-stream use of water and is, thus, likely to be a centralfocus of conflicts and negotiations over changing water demands and priorities. Understandably, irri- gators may view watershed initiatives as threatening. Alternatively, watershed initiatives can be viewed as a forum in which irrigators and nonirrigators can gain a better appreciation and understanding of their respective goals and inter- ests. We encourage irrigation interests to see watershed-based activities as an opportunity rather than a threat. Federal and state agencies shouldfacilitate problem-solving at the water- shed level by tailoring policies and programs to encourage such approaches, particularly where the issues can best be addressed at this level. In some cases this may mean providing increased flexibility in the manner in which explicit national or state objectives can be accomplished. It may require some reorgani- zation of responsibilities among federal and state agencies. It is likely to require

OCR for page 169
180 A NEW ERA FOR IRRIGATION at least some financial and technical support for more locally driven watershed activities. Final Thoughts Irrigation made possible the settlement and development of a large portion of this country. Irrigation, and irrigation policy, provided the means by which people could transform land with little apparent economic value into productive farms and ranches. These irrigated lands continue to support the people who live on them and to produce products that support large numbers of other people. For many whose livelihoods depend on irrigation, it is far more than just a job it is a way of life. Irrigation is in a time of transition, which brings uncertainty and anxiety. But irrigators in the United States have demonstrated creativity and resilience in responding to significant changes over the decades (sometimes willingly and sometimes less so) and these characteristics will be critical in the coming years. The challenges confronting irrigation occur within the larger context of history. This context, or culture, of irrigation and the traditions out of which it arose attest to the innovative and adaptive nature of irrigation as a whole. It shapes the thinking of those who are part of the irrigation community, particularly those living in rural agricultural areas. It affects the manner in which people within the irrigation community understand the forces of change discussed in this study, and it clearly affects how they are responding to these changes. The forces of change evident today and discussed in this study can be, and in many cases are, viewed by irrigators as threatening to this way of life. These forces challenge the value of irrigation by questioning whether and how much of this use of land and water is still justified. The committee rejects the view that irrigation is a Faustian bargain a price too great to pay for the benefits it pro- duces. Irrigation has served this nation well and will continue to do so in the future. But there will be changes in where and how irrigation occurs, particularly in the West. Some irrigators will prove unable to compete under the new condi- tions and will fail; others will see opportunity in change and thrive. Although the committee does not foresee explosive change on the horizon, certainly the future will bring surprises, some perhaps dramatic. It is critical that the same resource- fulness that has made irrigation such an important economic and cultural activity over the past 100 years be brought to bear in the future. If so, irrigation as a whole will likely continue to adopt more sustainable practices, practices that provide both economic and social benefits while reducing environmental harm.