Recent threats to water availability as a result of moderate to exceptional drought in several states have raised questions about agricultural water use and efficiencies across the United States. An understanding of common irrigation technologies and the impacts of best management practices in irrigation may be useful to Congress concerning potential policy responses to this issue. As a major user of water, the agricultural industry’s use of water resources continues to be a focal point of agriculture policy. Additional demands on water supplies, extreme weather events (e.g., prolonged drought), and agricultural market conditions have raised producers’ interest in investing in irrigation systems. Increased pressure on the industry to reduce its water use has also drawn interest in the adoption of irrigation technologies and best management practices (BMPs) as a means of achieving efficiency and potential water savings.
The federal government performs several roles in assisting agricultural producers with irrigation practices, including financial assistance, technical assistance, research, and monitoring and reporting. The majority of financial and technical assistance is offered through voluntary conservation programs that target increased irrigation efficiency. In some cases, improvements in irrigation efficiency can increase water consumption because farmers increase the number of irrigated acres or grow more profitable, water-intensive crops. This raises questions about how and where federal funds are allocated, particularly in areas where water shortages are a concern.
The use and significance of irrigated agriculture varies widely across the United States. Although policy discussions related to irrigation typically focus on western states—home to roughly 71% of irrigated farms—irrigation is practiced in all 50 states and is growing in the east. Over time, there has been a shift in water resources used for irrigation, with an increasing reliance on groundwater and less on the use of surface water.
The type of irrigation system used has also shifted over time—from a gravity, or flood-type of irrigation, to potentially more efficient pressurized sprinkler and drip irrigation systems. Pressure systems account for between 58 to 65% of irrigation systems used in the United States and include applicators such as center pivot, surface drip, slide roll or wheel move, and micro sprinkler. Gravity flow, which includes furrow, and controlled and uncontrolled flooding, accounts for approximately 35 to 42% of irrigation systems in the United States. Irrigation BMPs center around how water is managed on a farm and includes on-farm conveyance, irrigation scheduling, and application methods. Increasingly, precision technologies (e.g., drones, sensor networks, data analytics, etc.) are becoming a common part of many irrigation systems because of their potential to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.
The use of irrigation technology and BMPs bring both benefits and costs. The control of water application achieved through irrigation systems can create higher yields and allow the production of higher value crops, while potentially reducing some production costs. The additional cost of installing and maintaining these systems, however, can present a barrier to implementing BMPs. Accounting for variations in the local climate, soil type, water quality, and water availability may also challenge adoption of irrigation technologies and BMPs.