When farmers use more efficient irrigation technology, it doesn’t always mean less water is used on crops. That’s according to a national report published by the Government Accountability Office in November.
The report looked at places where the demand for irrigation water outpaces the amount naturally available. It identifies parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho and California as places that fit that category — both heavily irrigated and water-stressed.
The report finds farmers may respond to water savings from efficient technology by irrigating more acres or growing more water-intensive crops.
“A lot of times we equate improving efficiency with reducing water use and that doesn’t necessarily happen," said Dave Bjorneberg, who leads research for the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Kimberly, located in Twin Falls County.
Howard Neibling, a water management engineer at the University of Idaho's Kimberly Extension, said the study's findings don't cleanly apply to Idaho, in part because of laws that tie water rights to acreage farmers can irrigate.
For decades, Idaho farmers flooded fields to irrigate crops. The water sank beneath the soil and increased the groundwater supply in the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer. The transition to more precise sprinkler systems began around the 1950s and is still underway. And the move toward efficient sprinkler systems can have unintended effects, like depleting groundwater.
“Sometimes what we call wasted water is actually used by somebody else,” Bjorneberg said.
Still, Bjorneberg and Niebling both said it is important that farmers continue to adopt efficient technologies. As Idaho farmers implement even more efficient sprinkler systems — ones that are lower to the ground and result in less evaporation and transpiration — and other technologies like scheduling and remote monitoring devices, they may see less water consumption.
Idaho's water rights settlement and its aquifer recharge program, Niebling said, show the state has already begun solving some of the water usage issues identified in the report.
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