With increasing discussion about agriculture's water use and the prospect of raising yields to feed 9 billion people within the decade, farmers who use irrigation are beginning to consider production changes and incentives for those changes to both conserve water and improve profits.
With the help of public and private entities, these changes range from equipment upgrades to actually removing land from production – options that each provide unique challenges, but potential payoffs.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which falls under the umbrella of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, is one of the programs working to bring conservation and irrigation together under an incentive-based model.
The program, which provides financial and technical assistance to farmers for improving conservation practices, encompasses secondary programs that focus on irrigation.
Dan Johnson, NRCS California State Water Manager, says the EQUIP-supported changes he is helping to implement on California's farms are generally reducing water loss and contributing to a reduction in energy consumption.
Johnson, who explained his experiences with farmers and EQUIP projects during a Thursday webinar sponsored by the Irrigation Association, provided an example of a California farmer who was able to change his irrigation systems to drip irrigation, and use fertilizer in a more targeted manner.
That, Johnson said, keeps nitrates out of the soil and "is like music to our ears."
Producers have also seen benefits from a production standpoint or a convenience standpoint, Johnson said.
"One of the benefits is building a system that is automated or self-operated – they like that," he noted.
Those benefits, Johnson concluded, are generating interest in conservation practice adoption. However, he said, program facilitators will need to continue to look for ways to increase program benefits and adjust accordingly.
Dayna Gross, who serves as the Nature Conservancy's Silver Creek Watershed conservation manager in Idaho, is currently thinking outside of traditional partnerships by facilitating a collaboration between MillerCoors Brewing company and local barley growers.
Gross has also introduced water conservation initiatives, energy conservation initiatives and habitat improvements in the area, which have been well-received by local farmers. Some of the simplest changes were the most effective, she said, like taking end guns off of irrigation rigs and working with farmers to instead only plant areas within direct reach of water.
The changes, she said, saved farmers in the long run because they allow for more attention to the irrigated areas without wasting time, inputs and energy on areas with consistently poor yields. The out-of-production corners also provided wildlife habitat, Gross said.
"It's about efficiency right now; being able to get everything done," Gross added, which is why another portion of her program focuses on alternative ways to implement variable rate irrigation.
One way, she said, is to speed up or slow down pivots based on soil type and slope. She suggested that an option of that type may only cost a "couple thousand" while a full variable rate system, by comparison, could easily cost $20,000 to install and implement.
She hopes the variable rate alternative technologies will someday be available for Natural Resources Conservation Service funding.
Overall, incentive programs seem to be having an impact on irrigated producers, though Johnson suggested that continued improvement – and keeping an eye out for possible adverse consequences of certain practices – will be necessary for the future of incentive programs and improved, automated irrigation systems.
"These systems make sense," Johnson said.