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Irrigation water management is climate-smart agIrrigation water management is climate-smart ag

Water Lines: Irrigation modernization addresses fundamental problems in aging infrastructure, unifies solutions for rural farming communities.

Dan Keppen

December 22, 2022

3 Min Read
Todd Fitchette

President Joe Biden last August signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which included $20 billion to drive climate-smart agriculture and renewable energy initiatives nationwide.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is requesting input on how the agency’s regulations, policies, forms, or program processes should be modified, streamlined, expanded, or removed, to increase benefits achievable by the IRA funding.

The Family Farm Alliance and other agricultural and conservation groups are developing formal comments to urge NRCS to consider additional climate-smart agriculture and forestry mitigation activities that we believe must be considered eligible for funding under the IRA.

While NRCS offers a broad suite of voluntary conservation activities, the agency identifies a sub-set as critical to climate change mitigation. When applied appropriately, these Climate Smart Agriculture and Forest (CSAF) activities may deliver quantifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and/or increases in carbon sequestration.

However, there are other activities not included on the current list which should also be eligible for IRA funding.

For example, Irrigation Water Management is excluded from the CSAF list, except for a narrow application on rice fields. This could impact the immensely successful and ongoing efforts by water managers to use NRCS funding to develop comprehensive modernization strategies in many parts of the West.

Irrigation modernization addresses fundamental problems in aging infrastructure, unifies solutions for rural farming communities, and enhances the environment. It positions rural communities for long-term resilience from the impacts of climate change, enhancing our domestic food supply and a healthy environment for generations to come.

We cannot simply focus on greenhouse gas emission reductions that may take a century or more to reach desired impacts.  We must also include long-term adaptation efforts such as improving irrigation efficiencies through modernization in dealing with the fallout from climate change.

As large-diameter pipes replace leaky, gravity-fed open canal systems, the resulting conversion to a pressurized distribution system reduces on-farm and district fossil fuel consumption and directly reduces CO2 emissions. NRCS has identified fossil fuel reduction as an objective with the highest greenhouse gas benefit.

Installing in-conduit hydroelectric generation in these modernized irrigation district systems can also generate clean electricity using pressurized water flowing through a closed-pipe system to spin a turbine. As an added benefit, irrigation districts can sell the power generated to local utilities, providing the district with an additional revenue stream that they can use to accelerate investment in modernization projects.

Finally, upgrading irrigation systems by converting to sprinklers or drip can significantly reduce N2O emissions, reduce nitrogen losses, increase soil carbon, and generate energy savings (plus avoided greenhouse gas emissions), in addition to providing multiple other benefits related to water quantity and water quality.

Overall modernization of irrigation systems in many parts of the West will reduce GHG emissions and promote better nitrogen management and soil health practices.

It is for all of the above well-documented reasons that we are recommending that NRCS add these practices to the list of climate eligible activities that are to be prioritized for investment under the IRA.

[Dan Keppen is executive director of Family Farm Alliance.]

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