Stimulus funding targets irrigation efficiency


Drought intensified this summer throughout California and most of the West. Already over-allocated, water supplies are short across most of the West prompting irrigation cutbacks, dewatered streams, endangered species conflicts and protests in irrigation-dominated areas like the west-side of California’s San Joaquin Valley.  Drought also exacerbates water quality problems; less streamflow means more concentration of pollutants and greater negative impacts to fish and other Public Trust resources.

Under these circumstances the April announcement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) would distribute $84.8 million for “vital watershed projects” was especially welcome.  Vilsack recently announced another 42.3 million in recovery funds for watershed projects.  Both amounts are part of the federal government’s economic stimulus program. Many funded projects are located in the West. According to USDA information, most western projects will pay for infrastructure and equipment to enhance on-farm irrigation efficiency. 

The use of USDA conservation funds for projects that claim to reduce agriculture water demand began in a big way with the 2002 Farm Bill. That legislation included $50 million for on farm water conservation within the Klamath River Basin under the USDA’s Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP). The 2008 Farm Bill made EQIP water conservation funding available nationally and economic stimulus legislation has augmented those funds.

There is no doubt that these projects will stimulate rural economies. Equipment will be purchased, contracts awarded and people will be hired. But will the projects actually reduce demand for scarce water supplies?  Recent testimony from the Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General reported on this blog and my experience with NRCS water conservation programs on the ground suggests that the promised reduction in agricultural water use might not occur.

Below is a photo showing a Klamath EQIP project in the Scott River Valley - a major Klamath tributary. This project is supposed to reduce irrigation demand.




What you are seeing in the photo above is a center pivot irrigation system. These systems are not as efficient as drip irrigation but more efficient than wheel lines, flood irrigation and other common irrigation systems.

In most western river basins irrigated agriculture consumes 80% to 90% of all water used during the summer dry season.  Irrigation engineers and a new report by the Pacific Institute tell us that we can reduce water demand significantly by investing in irrigation efficiency. That would more than address the current excess of demand over supply and make new dams and reservoirs unnecessary. The project in the photo above, however, actually results in MORE not LESS water use during the critical late summer and fall salmon migration season. Here’s how a prohject that was supposed to result in less water use actually results in more use:

The center pivot irrigation system in the photo does not replace but rather augments a flood irrigation system. In the first case the water used is groundwater; in the case of flood irrigation the water comes through a ditch and is diverted from a salmon stream.

The idea behind the project is to replace inefficient flood irrigation with the much more efficient center pivot system. But in this case the irrigation ditch went dry with the end of snowpack. This occurs here in July or early August. Prior to the expensive new center pivot system installation, irrigation would end on this parcel when the ditch went dry. Now, however, the rancher can switch to the center pivot well system and pump groundwater through the rest of the growing season.

This might still increase streamflow IF the groundwater pumped was not closely connected to surface flow. But in this case groundwater and streamflow are closely interconnected.  When groundwater and surface flow are closely connected excessive groundwater pumping directly reduces stream flow or totally dewaters nearby streams. Ultimately most groundwater is connected to surface flow if only remotely.

Below is a photo of one of the many streams in the Scott River Valley which are dewatered as a result of excessive water diversion and groundwater pumping. Groundwater pumping is, for the most part, not regulated in California. 



Details about Klamath EQIP projects are considered proprietary and protected from disclosure even though the projects were funded by the federal government. Most Klamath EQIP projects which I’ve investigated do not conserve water but simply provide irrigators with a second source of irrigation water – usually groundwater. Implementation of Klamath EQIP has resulted in groundwater levels falling more precipitously in some Klamath River sub-basins. The USGS has documented the rapidly lowering water table in the Lost River area where the federal Klamath Project provides irrigation water.

The pasture land in the first photo is on a rocky hillside. It would not make sense to invest in an expensive irrigation system for such land. As a farmer would put it, the proposition would "just not pencil out." But if you can get the system for free you can increase forage production and your bottom line.

Many in agriculture expect direct crop subsidies to producers will be phased out in order to achieve new global free trade agreements.  USDA Conservation Program payments are already viewed as the source of government payments most likely to replace direct crop payments. Agricultural interests work behind the scenes to assure that USDA conservation programs deliver the maximum benefits to farmers and corporate bottom lines with a minimum of actual change in operations – including water consumption.

Most conservation organizations do not pay attention to these details; they support conservation program funding even when no substantial conservation benefits can be demonstrated.  Organizations like The Nature Conservancy receive substantial amounts of USDA Conservation Program funding directly.

Agriculture is pursuing a similar strategy with respect to carbon cap and trade. The Climate Change Bill which passed the House of Representatives shifts responsibility for determining cap and trade rules for agriculture and forestry from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Agriculture. I suspect agriculture and timber operatives believe they can influence the NRCS cap-and-trade regulations and implementation so that they get carbon storage credits for doing what they are already doing. That is not the way to reduce carbon emissions. But that is another story for another time.     

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