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Publication Date
27 February 2024

Exploring the Impact of Farm Cropping Adaptation on Water Scarcity

Traditional large-scale modeling efforts that neglect adaptive cropping adaptation may misdiagnose water shortage outcomes.
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Photo by Süleyman Şahan from Pexels


Recent research highlights how farmers may adapt to water scarcity by adjusting the land they irrigate, which could reduce predicted water shortages by up to 42%. A new computer model simulating U.S. farmers' irrigation practices in response to varying water availability revealed that current models may overestimate future shortages by not accounting for these adaptive behaviors. This insight is crucial for enhancing the accuracy of water shortage predictions and developing more effective water management strategies.


Addressing water scarcity, our research accounts for farmers' dynamic decision-making in a novel water model, challenging the static assumptions of traditional models. This approach reveals potential overestimations of future water shortages by considering adaptive crop area changes in response to water availability. Our findings suggest that incorporating farmers' adaptive behaviors can lead to a more accurate prediction of water needs, offering insights for agriculture, water management, and climate adaptation policies.


We demonstrate the representation of farmer-irrigated crop area adaptation to changing water availability in a large-scale hydrological modeling framework, with farmer agents' adaptivity specified using a positive economic calibration approach. The modeling framework allows for the evaluation of dynamic feedback between irrigated cropping areas, reservoir management, and water availability and reveals that these interactions strongly shape national-scale water shortage outcomes. In a comparative hypothetical experiment conducted for all of CONUS, annual water shortages decrease by as much as 42% when accounting for farmer cropping adaptation, with differences due to adaptation being even further pronounced in regions prone to water shortage, such as California (where neglecting farmer adaptation results in an overestimate of water shortage by a factor of 2 during the year of highest shortage). Our hypothetical modeling experiment indicates that traditional large-scale modeling efforts that neglect adaptive cropping adaptation may be liable to misdiagnose water shortage outcomes. While farmer adaptation to decreasing surface water availability is accompanied by an associated loss in expected agricultural profit, this loss is buffered by the ability to switch crops and reallocate groundwater to more profitable crops to compensate for surface water shortages.

Particularly in agricultural hotspots with highly variable or declining water availability, the assumption of non-adaptive behavior most common in large-scale hydrologic models leads to overestimation of water shortages in our experiment. By isolating the effects of changing water availability on farmer cropping through comparing hypothetical adaptive and non-adaptive runs, our findings suggest that adaptation can significantly alleviate water shortages and bring into question the severity of water shortage outcomes indicated by global water security analyses that neglect such adaptations, especially for regions such as the western US in which water availability is expected to decline due to climate change. This novel approach lays the groundwork for more accurate water security assessments that consider dynamic cropping responses to evolving climatic and socioeconomic factors.

Point of Contact
Jennie Rice
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Funding Program Area(s)