Synergy in irrigation technology By George Oamek, PhD

A future irrigation technology center to be located in northeastern Colorado was a topic of discussion at the recent Water for Food Conference at the University of Nebraska. The Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research appears willing to commit nearly $5 million, which will hopefully be equally matched by funds and insightful research proposals from regional land grant colleges and other institutions to total about $10 million in initial investments. The proposal for this major effort is currently being developed by a consortium of partners from university, industry and others.

Supporters of the center, which included about everybody attending the conference, appeared equally divided between those who are serious about irrigation technology and those whose interests lie more with the water saved by new technologies, rather than technology itself. A sampling of the former group included academics, irrigation equipment representatives and service providers. Possibly most readers of this publication may be more interested in the technology side of the picture, as well.

Representatives of the latter group included environmental interests and large water providers, whose interests include using conserved water for instream flows and firming municipal water supplies. As an economics-type, this diverse mix left me with more optimism for an irrigation technology center than I had going into the conference because this represents somewhat of a “marriage” needed to put competing water uses on more sustainable paths.

As economists and water stewards, we’re all about using technology to shift the marginal cost curve downward and otherwise making irrigators more economically competitive in times of tight profit margins. From a farm-level perspective, it’s not too difficult to determine whether a new technology is economically feasible under a range of price, yield and water availability conditions. There are scores of master’s theses (including mine) that have done this. But in general, technology has historically treated irrigators well, and as a result, it’s natural to support an irrigation technology center for the potential on-farm and industry benefits.

However, it should be appreciated that irrigation technology improvements cover a wide range of applications and capital costs. Although a measure may be economically feasible, it may not be financially feasible to implement. District-wide types of improvements, such as canal rehabilitation, SCADA telemetry and improved diversion structures are expensive and can be beyond the ability of any single irrigator or the surrounding districts to reasonably finance. Federal programs such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program certainly help by providing cost sharing, but a major source of future funding for irrigation improvements and

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technology adoption may be the environmentalists and municipal water providers sitting across the room. And, these non-irrigators look at the water balance equation a bit differently, especially in areas affected by the prior appropriation doctrine and in areas of strong inter-connectedness of surface water and groundwater.

Irrigators focus upon saving money by diverting less or pumping less water while still meeting the crop’s irrigation needs. That is, consumptive use remains the same but the system is more efficient. The environmental and municipal folks’ goal is to reduce consumptive use, whether it be by adopting new irrigation technologies or through a range of other measures, because most of the diverted or pumped water beyond what is needed for the crop use stays within the hydrological system and provides downstream supply. So, simply having a highly efficient on-farm irrigation system doesn’t help the environment or distant municipality much as long as the crop’s consumptive use requirement is not measurably reduced. However, at a district- wide perspective, measures that reduce the consumptive use of phreatophytes, canal evaporation and other irrecoverable losses would have potential.

From an on-farm perspective, consumptive use can be reduced by switching to lower water-using crops, fallowing or dryland farming less productive irrigated lands, and regulated deficit irrigating. The latter measure involves intentionally water-stressing the crop on the basis that the incremental reduction in water usage is proportionately greater than the incremental reduction in crop value. All of these measures have the potential to reduce an irrigator’s profits and leaves one wondering about what possible role an irrigation technology center may have here?

Temporarily wearing my environmentalist hat, I would encourage a new center to focus upon technological improvements for the benefits of irrigators and their surrounding organizations. However, I would also implore the center to equally focus upon technological adoption and its use in balancing demands across economic sectors. Consider the following examples:

• Continue existing programs investigating regulated deficit irrigation. This would include further development of basic crop-water production data and work toward the acceptance of deficit irrigation techniques by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. Currently, a large percentage of irrigated crops are insured but cannot be intentionally deficit-irrigated due to insurance requirements. This will likely change in the future but is not the case currently.

• Develop non-technological efforts relating to the willingness of irrigators to enter into temporary and permanent water sharing arrangements for environmental health and municipal water supply. These arrangements could include leases, water

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