Water Conservation in Irrigation Can Increase Water Use

Frank A. Warda,
Department of Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM

Manuel Pulido-Velazquez,
Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering–Institute of Water and Environmental Engineering, Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Cami de Vera s/n 46120 Valencia, Spain

Edited by Partha Sarathi Dasgupta,
University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, and approved September 23, 2008


Climate change, water supply limits, and continued population growth have intensified the search for measures to conserve water in irrigated agriculture, the world’s largest water user. Policy measures that encourage adoption of water-conserving irrigation technologies are widely believed to make more water available for cities and the environment. However, little integrated analysis has been conducted to test this hypothesis. This article presents results of an integrated basin-scale analysis linking biophysical, hydrologic, agronomic, economic, policy, and institutional dimensions of the Upper Rio Grande Basin of North America. It analyzes a series of water conservation policies for their effect on water used in irrigation and on water conserved. In contrast to widely-held beliefs, our results show that water conservation subsidies are unlikely to reduce water use under conditions that occur in many river basins. Adoption of more efficient irrigation technologies reduces valuable return flows and limits aquifer recharge. Policies aimed at reducing water applications can actually increase water depletions. Achieving real water savings requires designing institutional, technical, and accounting measures that accurately track and economically reward reduced water depletions. Conservation programs that target reduced water diversions or applications provide no guarantee of saving water.

Click here to view abstract at PNAS