Irrigation Management in the Western States, seen from overseas

by Fandi P. Nurzaman

The transformation of the western United States by irrigation offers hope for developing countries looking for models to improve their irrigation system for food security or agricultural prosperity.

The transformation of the American West from barren desert and low value grazing into one of the largest agriculture areas in the United States would be impossible without irrigation. Water supply infrastructure currently delivers waters for about 40 million acres of irrigated land (74% nationwide) across arid regions in the Western.

Replicating the same irrigation systems from the Western States would be impossible, but how irrigation institutions and financing mechanisms were developed to adapt some challenges in the past could still be useful practices.

Irrigation has been employed in the 17 western states for several centuries. At least since the 7th century, vast networks of canals were used by the Hohokam people in central Arizona for agricultural irrigation for the highest population density in the prehistoric of American Southwest. The Hohokam irrigation system was simple, but applied hydraulic engineering design features still used today and also became the precursor to modern-day Arizona’s major canal system.

During Spanish colonization in the American Southwest, irrigation was used to support agriculture and ensure political control in these areas by the Spanish Government. Settlers were granted access to irrigation water to secure and defend the colonized areas. The construction of complex and expansive irrigation systems, along with the introduction of water governance in those systems, became one of the most significant accomplishments of the Spanish Colonial period in the American Southwest.

Early in the 19th century, irrigation-based communities became more common and widespread in the western states as . The Mormons established the first irrigation-based economy and basic principles of water law. These principles became an important legal precedent for Western water law when they abandoned riparian water rights and adopted the doctrine of “prior appropriations for beneficial use.

After acquisition of the West by the United States, irrigation systems were rapidly developed to promote economic development and speed privatization of newly acquired arid and semiarid public land. Hundreds of irrigation projects and major dams were constructed as part of the Reclamation Projects, which currently irrigate about .

Expansion of irrigation in the western states also was supported by the transformation of institutions that deliver water and operate irrigation infrastructures. Neighbor-farmers created coownership in joint irrigation networks. These institutions ranged from unofficial organizations (unincorporated mutual systems) to legally constituted cooperative corporations under state law (incorporated mutual systems) or special local political subdivisions of state government (irrigation districts). Large irrigation projects with larger economies of scale and capital expenditures were not feasible by simple cost sharing among farmers. Institutional breakthroughs were developed to tackle financial barriers and to adapt regulatory challenges.

More recently, new problems pose challenges for water supply that developing countries should consider. As the population and concern for environment and sustainability grow, managing irrigation systems in the Western States becomes more challenging. Some water must be dedicated to ecological benefits, but environmental water uses were rarely counted as major water uses in the past. These , either for recreation or the environment, will increase competition for water and make irrigation water more vulnerable to water shortage, a perennial risk in the American West.

California’s recent Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (and similar regulations in other states) also will affect farmers and ranchers who use groundwater to supplement or replace shortages of surface water. These regulations will increasingly shape how groundwater is managed.

Western US farmers also have faced increasing discontinuance of irrigation due to inability to get irrigation water or economic driven factors such as rising costs for irrigation water. Decreasing irrigated acres in the long term could lead to economic losses for rural areas in the Western States. Farmers are likely to increase use of precision irrigation and to increase on-farm irrigation efficiencies. When severe drought happens again and water restrictions and curtailments occur, farmers might prefer to fallow some fields (to support other higher value crops) or sell their water during the drought. These irrigated areas significantly contribute to the United States’ economy and the Western States’ economies. Without irrigation, many agriculture products, especially wheat, vegetables, fruits, tree nuts, and berries, along with cattle farming and dairying products would be imported from other parts of the United States or other countries.

Irrigation has a foundational role in the development of the Western US. Developing countries could benefit by understanding the challenges encountered by the Western US and adjusting their irrigation system based on the Western US practices in order to address local issues they are facing.

Fandi P. Nurzaman is a graduate student at Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UC Davis and National Planner for Water Resources and Irrigation at the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning.

Further reading

Bretsen, S. N., Hill, P. J. (2007). “Irrigation Institution in American West.”  UCLA Journal of Environmental Law and Policy Vol. 25:283.

Howard, J. B. (1992). “Desert Canals: Hohokam Legacy.“ Pueblo Grande Museum Profiles No. 12.

Hutchins, W. A. (1931). “Summary of Irrigation-District Statutes.” United States Department of Agriculture, Miscellaneous Publication No. 103, January 1931.

Mays, W. M., (2016). “Irrigation Systems, Ancient.” Water Encyclopedia: Science and Issues. (November 29, 2016).

Nurzaman, F.P. (2017) Irrigation Management in the Western States, MS project Report, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California – Davis.

Rivera, J. A., Glick, T. F. (2002). Iberian Origins of New Mexico’s Community Acequias.” The XIII Economic History Congress, Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 2002.

Zarr, G. (2016). “How the Middle Eastern Irrigation Ditch Called Acequia Changed the American Southwest.” AramcoWorld Vol. 67, No. 5, September/October, 2016.

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2 Responses to Irrigation Management in the Western States, seen from overseas

  1. Pingback: California Water News for June 19, 2017

  2. Dennis Johnson says:

    Any consideration of development of irrigation systems and projects should take a long-term view of the sustainability of the system in light of the parameters of its location, maintenance and operation requirements and “deep” ecological effects. The Westlands Water District on the Eastside of the Southern San Joaquin Valley is an example of failures to consider location, economics and politics. The District was established on an uneconomic model where the cost charged for the water often failed to cover the Operations and Maintenance cost of the districts and the Federal water projects that supply the water. Accordingly the cost of the subsidy fell to the taxpayers who over time decided there were other uses for the water with higher political priorities. If the District was based on a viable economic model it would have insulated them against changing public priorities. The District failed to complete the physical system by abandoning the drainage canal due to both economic and political costs. The land being cultivated lacks drainage Which leads to concentration of salts and heavy metals without the drainage. While technology in many forms (irrigation technology, improved plant breeding, and water management) has delayed a failure of the system it is still very likely. In the event of severe drought as we just experienced, or “political drought”, the ability of the farmer to sell the land is limited. They bought into the land at a price where the “highest and best use” of the land was irrigated farmland. Without irrigation, the highest and best use is limited to grazing, solar power generation, and waste storage / recycling as indicated by current uses of an increasing amount of District land. The land in its natural state would not support intensive agriculture. Irrigation allowed the land to be productively used but is design and operation outstripped the economic and geographic constraints such that an inevitable reckoning is delayed but due. Some may (and do) argue that Westlands is an example of a project that is successful, leading to economic growth in the region, state and nation. Those proponents however use a fairly short timeline for their assessment. The District and systems are decades old, not even yet a century. Large scale development of high cost projects such as irrigation should be judged on the basis of success over a long period where economic and ecological costs are considered, fairly covered and sustainable.


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