The Role of Water Governance and Irrigation Technologies in Regional-Scale Water Use and Consumption in the US West

Monday, December 11, 2017 - 08:00
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Water management in the Western USA is challenged by the demands of an increased population, ecological needs and changing values for water use, and a broadening of variability in climate, which together have created physical limits on water availability. The management of scarce water resources in this region is strictly constrained by the current legal structure (prior appropriation water rights) on one hand, and on the other assisted by the development of new, efficient water delivery and application technologies. Therefore, critical components for a complete understanding of the hydrological landscape include the institutions governing water rights, the technologies used for the highly water consumptive agricultural sector, and the role institutions and technologies play in altering when and where water is used and consumed by humans or reserved for the environment.

To explore the sensitivities of water availability within the human-physical system, we present a method to incorporate water rights allocated under the prior appropriation doctrine for the western U.S. into the University of New Hampshire macro-scale Water Balance Model to capture the essential structure of these rights and their impacts on different economic sectors in Idaho and across the US West. In addition to legal structures, new irrigation technologies also alter the efficiency and timing of water use. We assess the impacts of a variety of technologies for both the delivery of water to the agricultural fields and the application methods for bringing water to the crops on consumptive and non-consumptive agricultural water use. We explore the impacts relative to natural climate variability, investigate the role that return flows from different agricultural technologies have on regional water balance, and examine the sensitivity of the entire system to extremes such as extended drought. These methods are sufficiently generalizable to be used by other hydrological models.

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