Alleviating Water Scarcity by Optimizing Crop Mixes

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Nature Portfolio

Irrigated agriculture dominates freshwater consumption globally, but crop production and farm revenues suffer when water supplies are insufficient to meet irrigation needs. In the United States, the mismatch between irrigation demand and freshwater availability has been exacerbated in recent decades due to recurrent droughts, climate change and over extraction that dries rivers and depletes aquifers. Yet, there has been no spatially detailed assessment of the potential for shifting to new crop mixes to reduce crop water demands and alleviate water shortage risks. In this study, we combined modelled crop water requirements and detailed agricultural statistics within a national hydrological model to quantify sub-basin-level river depletion, finding high-to-severe levels of irrigation scarcity in 30% of sub-basins in the western United States, with cattle-feed crops—alfalfa and other hay—being the largest water consumers in 57% of the region’s sub-basins. We also assessed recent trends in irrigation water consumption, crop production and revenue generation in six high-profile farming areas and found that in recent decades, water consumption has decreased in four of our study areas—a result of a reduction in the irrigated area and shifts in the production of the most water-consumptive crops—even while farm revenues increased. To examine the opportunities for crop shifting and fallowing to realize further reductions in water consumption, we performed optimizations on realistic scenarios for modifying crop mixes while sustaining or improving net farm profits, finding that additional water savings of 28–57% are possible across our study areas. These findings demonstrate strong opportunities for economic, food security and environmental co-benefits in irrigated agriculture and provide both hope and direction to regions struggling with water scarcity around the world.

Water scarcity, Crop mixes