Help to improve irrigation efficiency is available through USDA-NRCS programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). “But EQIP cost-share funding can be used only to help replace less efficient irrigation systems with more efficient irrigation systems—converting fields from furrow irrigation to low pressure center pivot or subsurface drip irrigation, for instance,” she said.

“These funds can't be used to put irrigation systems on land not previously irrigated—that would not be conservation.”

Those more efficient irrigation systems do not necessarily save water, she said.  “Efficiency alone does not necessarily mean conservation. Sometimes efficient systems and practices help conserve water, and we see this happening in areas where water capacities are less limiting. Generally they help to make ‘more crop per drop,’ generating higher crop yields for the same water (higher water use efficiency) or mitigating yield losses from declining water. 

That’s fairly common, she said, in the Texas Southern High Plains “where well capacity is the primary limiting factor to crop yields. Growers pump what they have, and they try to maximize the productivity with their limited water.”

That’s not always a water conservation practice and they may be using more water or less.  “Hopefully they are seeing higher productivity or profitability as a result of the higher efficiency.”


Other factors play into improving irrigation efficiency, including, management and other local factors. “Some growers are managing crops more intensely, and since center pivots and subsurface drip irrigation allow relatively precise control of application rates and timing (as compared to furrow irrigation), they may be irrigating longer during the season (and running their wells longer). They may be using more water—or not—compared to furrow irrigation. Or they may be using the same water on a smaller area of land, concentrating inputs on that smaller area. 

“I have spoken with growers who used a ‘gosh awful’ amount of water in 2011 trying to germinate their crops. I have also spoken with growers who report surprisingly good yields with little water. Local conditions (soil, climate, timing of precipitation, etc.) and management can make a tremendous difference in water use efficiency.”