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Pacific Southwest, Region 9

Serving: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Pacific Islands, Tribal Nations

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What Is Agricultural Water Use?

Agriculture is an important part of the nation’s economy. For example, here in the Pacific Southwest, California has a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. Our region is also challenged with long droughts and water shortages. Farmers and ranchers grow food and fiber for the world, which requires using large quantities of water, particularly for irrigation. According to the United States Geological Survey’s Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000, 34% of our nation’s available water was withdrawn for irrigation purposes.

Agricultural water use is facing increasing pressure due to competing needs for urban development, ecosystem protections, and the increasing costs of water, as well as its scarcity.

How Can Water and Energy Be Used More Efficiently?

As stewards of the land, farmers have the unique opportunity to help mitigate climate change and water shortages in a number of ways: improving water-use efficiency, enhancing on-farm water retention, reducing on-farm demand, restoring habitat, protecting open space, increasing soil organic matter and soil moisture, sequestering carbon, and generating on-farm renewable energy from sources such as livestock waste.

Using Irrigation Systems More Efficiently

On farm water conservation methods Exiting EPA (disclaimer) include irrigation scheduling, tail water return systems increasing water pump efficiency Exiting EPA (disclaimer) and powering irrigation pumps with renewable energy. Exiting EPA (disclaimer)

You can learn more about efficient irrigation technologies and practices with the Center for Irrigation Technology Exiting EPA (disclaimer) and the CA Department of Water Resources. Exiting EPA (disclaimer)

Enhancing On-Farm Water Retention

The U.S. produces many organic materials that can be used as soil amendments: livestock waste, foods scraps collected through municipalities, food processing wastes, industrial organic wastes, logging residues, wood processing wastes, and yard clippings. Judiciously applied to cropland, these "wastes" help retain soil moisture and fertilize the soil, increasing soil organic carbon content, and there by helping mitigate global climate change. Using cover crops, Exiting EPA (disclaimer) managing crop residues and other biomass, and implementing conservation tillage Exiting EPA (disclaimer) methods also allow water and energy to be used more efficiently and improve the physical, chemical and biological health of the soil by improving its structure, infiltration rate, and organic matter content.

Restoring Habitat

Conservation buffers and restored wetlands and riparian areas are just a few ways farmers can restore and protect habitat. These actions not only enhance wildlife habitat and protect biodiversity, but also mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Financial assistance is available through the USDA Farm Bill’s conservation programs--the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and Conservation Stewardship Incentives Program (CSIP).

Generating Energy “On-Farm”

Renewable energy options—like solar, geothermal, and wind—use negligible amounts of water. Investing in renewables invests in water conservation. Farmers have a unique opportunity to take advantage of waste and space in order to generate energy on their farm.

Dairies can utilize methane from cow manure and produce energy through the use of anaerobic digesters. The AgSTAR Program encourages the use of methane recovery (biogas) technologies at confined animal feeding operations that manage manure as liquids or slurries. These technologies reduce methane emissions while achieving other environmental benefits.

You can find out more about how farmers are harnessing (and profiting from) alternative energy sources like wind, sun, water and energy crops at the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. Exiting EPA (disclaimer)

Case Studies

  • Farmers throughout California are adopting more sustainable water management practices. The Pacific Institute has released five new case studies and four new video interviews, adding to their California Farm Water Success Stories series showing how agricultural water stewardship practices are at work on-the-ground, at the farm and irrigation-district level. All twelve case studies and eight interviews are available online. Exiting EPA (disclaimer)
  • In order to demonstrate that water efficiency measures and other best practice agricultural techniques are currently being implemented by successful growers, the Pacific Institute published California Farm Water Success Stories (PDF) (75 pp, 1.4M). This report presents stories of innovative people, practices, and policies throughout California's agricultural economy with a focus on those that increase water efficiency, water quality, and crop yields.
  • The Wine Institute’s Comprehensive Guide to Sustainable Management of Winery Water and Associated Energy Exiting EPA (disclaimer) provides a set of tools for wineries of all sizes to use in realigning existing facilities or designing new facilities to achieve goals for sustainable management of winery source water and wastewater, with ancillary benefits of increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas generation.
  • From installing rainwater catchment and solar water heaters on farms to using water more efficiently at their dairy processing facilities, Dean Foods Exiting EPA (disclaimer) is reducing water up and down their supply chain.
  • The Pacific Institute’s More with Less: Agricultural Water Conservation and Efficiency in California Exiting EPA (disclaimer) looks at four scenarios for increasing agricultural water-use efficiency. Their central findings show that improving agricultural water-use efficiency will not only maintain a strong agricultural sector but create a more resilient agricultural sector.

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