skip to main content

Title: Water shortage risks from perennial crop expansion in California’s Central Valley

California’s Central Valley is one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. Its high-value fruit, vegetable, and nut crops rely on surface water imports from a vast network of reservoirs and canals as well as groundwater, which has been substantially overdrafted to support irrigation. The region has undergone a shift to perennial (tree and vine) crops in recent decades, which has increased water demand amid a series of severe droughts and emerging regulations on groundwater pumping. This study quantifies the expansion of perennial crops in the Tulare Lake Basin, the southern region of the Central Valley with limited natural water availability. A gridded crop type dataset is compiled on a 1 mi2spatial resolution from a historical database of pesticide permits over the period 1974–2016 and validated against aggregated county-level data. This spatial dataset is then analyzed by irrigation district, the primary spatial scale at which surface water supplies are determined, to identify trends in planting decisions and agricultural water demand over time. Perennial crop acreage has nearly tripled over this period, and currently accounts for roughly 60% of planted area and 80% of annual revenue. These trends show little relationship with water availability and have been driven primarily by market demand. From this data, we focus on the increasing minimum irrigation needs each year to sustain perennial crops. Results indicate that under a range of plausible future regulations on groundwater pumping ranging from 10% to 50%, water supplies may fail to consistently meet demands, increasing losses by up to 30% of annual revenues. More broadly, the datasets developed in this work will support the development of dynamic models of the integrated water-agriculture system under uncertain climate and regulatory changes to understand the combined impacts of water supply shortages and intensifying irrigation demand.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
1716130 1639268
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Publisher / Repository:
IOP Publishing
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Environmental Research Letters
Page Range / eLocation ID:
Article No. 104014
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Agriculture is the largest user of water in the United States. Yet, we do not understand the spatially resolved sources of irrigation water use (IWU) by crop. The goal of this study is to estimate crop‐specific IWU from surface water withdrawals (SWW), total groundwater withdrawals (GWW), and nonrenewable groundwater depletion (GWD). To do this, we employ the PCR‐GLOBWB 2 global hydrology model to partition irrigation information from the U.S. Geological Survey Water Use Database to specific crops across the Continental United States (CONUS). We incorporate high‐resolution input data on agricultural production and climate within the CONUS to obtain crop‐specific irrigation estimates for SWW, GWW, and GWD for 20 crops and crop groups from 2008 to 2020 at county spatial resolution. Over the study period, SWW decreased by 20%, while both GWW and GWD increased by 3%. On average, animal feed (alfalfa/hay) uses the most irrigation water across all water sources: 33 from SWW, 13 from GWW, and 10 km3/yr from GWD. Produce used less SWW (43%), but more GWW (57%), and GWD (27%) over the study time‐period. The largest changes in IWU for each water source between the years 2008 and 2020 are: rice (SWW decreased by 71%), sugar beets (GWW increased by 232%), and rapeseed (GWD increased by 405%). These results present the first national‐scale assessment of irrigation by crop, water source, and year. In total, we contribute nearly 2.5 million data points to the literature (3,142 counties; 13 years; 3 water sources; and 20 crops).

    more » « less
  2. Groundwater use for irrigation has a major influence on agricultural productivity and local water resources. This study evaluated the groundwater irrigation schemes, SWAT auto-irrigation scheduling based on plant water stress (Auto-Irr), and prescribed irrigation based on well pumping rates in MODFLOW (Well-Irr), in the U.S. Northern High Plains (NHP) aquifer using coupled SWAT-MODFLOW model simulations for the period 1982–2008. Auto-Irr generally performed better than Well-Irr in simulating groundwater irrigation volume (reducing the mean bias from 86 to −30%) and groundwater level (reducing the normalized root-mean-square-error from 13.55 to 12.47%) across the NHP, as well as streamflow interannual variations at two stations (increasing NSE from 0.51, 0.51 to 0.55, 0.53). We also examined the effects of groundwater irrigation on the water cycle. Based on simulation results from Auto-Irr, historical irrigation led to significant recharge along the Elkhorn and Platte rivers. On average over the entire NHP, irrigation increased surface runoff, evapotranspiration, soil moisture and groundwater recharge by 21.3%, 4.0%, 2.5% and 1.5%, respectively. Irrigation improved crop water productivity by nearly 27.2% for corn and 23.8% for soybean. Therefore, designing sustainable irrigation practices to enhance crop productivity must consider both regional landscape characteristics and downstream hydrological consequences. 
    more » « less
  3. Irrigation reduces crop vulnerability to drought and heat stress and thus is a promising climate change adaptation strategy. However, irrigation also produces greenhouse gas emissions through pump energy use. To assess potential conflicts between adaptive irrigation expansion and agricultural emissions mitigation efforts, we calculated county-level emissions from irrigation energy use in the US using fuel expenditures, prices, and emissions factors. Irrigation pump energy use produced 12.6 million metric tonnes CO2-e in the US in 2018 (90% CI: 10.4, 15.0), predominantly attributable to groundwater pumping. Groundwater reliance, irrigated area extent, water demand, fuel choice, and electrical grid emissions intensity drove spatial heterogeneity in emissions. Due to heavy reliance on electrical pumps, projected reductions in electrical grid emissions intensity are estimated to reduce pumping emissions by 46% by 2050, with further reductions possible through pump electrification. Quantification of irrigation-related emissions will enable targeted emissions reduction efforts and climate-smart irrigation expansion. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    We provide a dataset of irrigation water withdrawals by crop, county, year, and water source within the United States. We employ a framework we previously developed to establish a companion dataset to our original estimates. The main difference is that we now use the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) variable ‘irrigation — total’ to partition PCR-GLOBWB 2 hydrology model estimates, instead of ‘irrigation — crop’ as used in previous estimates. Our findings for Surface Water Withdrawals (SWW), total Groundwater Withdrawals (GWW), and nonrenewable Groundwater Depletion (GWD) are similar to those of prior estimates but now have better spatial coverage, since several states are missing from the USGS ‘irrigation — crop’ variable that was originally used. Irrigation water use increases in this study, since more states are included and ‘irrigation — total’ includes more categories of irrigation than ‘irrigation — crop’. Notably, irrigation in the Mississippi Embayment Aquifer is now captured for rice and soy. We provide nearly 2.5 million data points with this paper (3,142 counties; 13 years; 3 water sources; and 20 crops).

    more » « less
  5. null (Ed.)
    Agricultural production in the Great Plains provides a significant amount of food for the United States while contributing greatly to farm income in the region. However, recurrent droughts and expansion of crop production are increasing irrigation demand, leading to extensive pumping and attendant depletion of the Ogallala aquifer. In order to optimize water use, increase the sustainability of agricultural production, and identify best management practices, identification of food–water conflict hotspots in the Ogallala Aquifer Region (OAR) is necessary. We used satellite remote sensing time series of agricultural production (net primary production, NPP) and total water storage (TWS) to identify hotspots of food–water conflicts within the OAR and possible reasons behind these conflicts. Mean annual NPP (2001–2018) maps clearly showed intrusion of high NPP, aided by irrigation, into regions of historically low NPP (due to precipitation and temperature). Intrusion is particularly acute in the northern portion of OAR, where mean annual TWS (2002–2020) is high. The Oklahoma panhandle and Texas showed large decreasing TWS trends, which indicate the negative effects of current water demand for crop production on TWS. Nebraska demonstrated an increasing TWS trend even with a significant increase of NPP. A regional analysis of NPP and TWS can convey important information on current and potential conflicts in the food–water nexus and facilitate sustainable solutions. Methods developed in this study are relevant to other water-constrained agricultural production regions. 
    more » « less