Western Irrigators Face Less Supportive Policies, Increasing Global Competition

January 1, 1990

Farmers irrigating in the western United States face a host of changing circumstances that will require innovations and new adaptations to ensure continued prosperity. The report Future of Irrigated Agriculture, which was published by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), a leading consortium of 30 professional scientific societies, describes the circumstances and identifies possible responses to change.

Dr. Henry J. Vaux, Associate Vice President for the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and chair of the CAST task force, summarizes the many changes confronting irrigation farmers:

“Western growers face intensifying competition for developed water supplies from urban users and for environmental purposes. Growers in areas where ground water is overdrafted will face increasing costs. Simultaneously, federal agricultural and water policies–which have been very generous to irrigated agriculture historically–are likely to become less favorable.

“All of this is expected to happen at a time when the economic circumstances facing western agriculture become more challenging as a consequence of the increasing globalization of markets for food and fiber. In the next decade, then, western growers will find themselves in circumstances that will be very different from the circumstance of today.”

Report Recommendations

Western growers will adapt to change more easily if new policies are created that focus specifically on the need to manage water in an era of scarcity. The CAST report lists four major types of public policies that might be developed to strengthen U.S. agriculture in the West.

1. Policies that create consistency and certainty in the regulatory environment in which irrigated agriculture operates.

2. Policies that establish and employ marketlike forces and incentives. “Such policies,” says Vaux, “would permit each grower to adjust and adapt in ways that make the most sense given local circumstances. They would help to harness the entrepreneurial abilities of individual growers.”

3. Policies that facilitate the establishment of well-functioning water markets but provide appropriate protections for third parties.

4. Policies that provide for and underwrite public investment in basic research and in research yielding benefits, which will be widespread throughout the agricultural industry.

Regional Assessments

“Change will not affect all regions of the West equally,” says Vaux. “Ground water overdraft is likely to be most severe on the southern Great Plains though it may also pose problems in parts of California’s Central Valley and in parts of Arizona. Competition for water from growing urban areas will be most intense in California and Arizona while competition from instream uses may be particularly acute in the Pacific Northwest. Competition from environmental uses is likely to have less of an impact in Arizona and on the western Great Plains than elsewhere in the West.”

Adaptation Strategies

Many methods of adapting to water scarcity already are in use. These include (1) altering crop mix to emphasize high-value fruit and vegetable crops, (2) using sophisticated irrigation technology and water management schemes to manage water precisely and efficiently, and (3) investing in research to develop better crops, methods of cultivation, and irrigation techniques.

And new means of adaptation are likely to become available. Automated and precision irrigation systems likely will be developed. Agricultural biotechnology may lead to the development of new crops that can be grown more cheaply, yield superior products, or utilize less water. General innovations in the management of agricultural operations are likely to become available as well.

Existing Institutions Are Antiquated

“Unfortunately, most of the laws and institutions guiding irrigated agriculture in the West are antiquated,” says Vaux. “Simply put, they often are not well-suited to an era when efficient water use and the need to adapt to rapid change are so important.”

Many state and federal water laws are outdated, and the lack of effective enforcement of some laws creates uncertainty about who is entitled to how much water. The legal system provides few incentives to manage water efficiently, and there often are legal barriers to the establishment of markets for water and water rights.

Irrigated agriculture has the capacity to adapt to the various changes confronting it. Ease of adaptation will depend in part upon whether changes are made in water policies and institutions.


Related Publications: Future of Irrigated Agriculture

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