A Paradigm Shift in Irrigation Management

by Marshall J. English, (M.ASCE),
Kenneth H. Solomon, (M.ASCE),
Glenn J. Hoffman,

Part of: Perspectives in Civil Engineering: Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the American Society of Civil Engineers


In coming decades, irrigated agriculture will be called upon to produce up to two thirds of the increased food supply needed by an expanding world population. But the increasing dependence on irrigation wili coincide with accelerating competition for water and rising concern about the environmental effects of irrigation. These converging pressures will force irrigators to reconsider what is perhaps the most fundamental precept of conventional irrigation practice, that crop water demands should be satisfied in order to achieve maximum crop yields per unit of land. Ultimately, irrigated agriculture will need to adopt a new management paradigm based on an economic objective—the maximization of net benefits—rather than the biological objective of maximizing yields. Irrigation to meet crop water demand is a relatively simple and clearly defined problem with a singular objective. Irrigation to maximize benefits is a substantially more complex and challenging problem. Identifying optimum irrigation strategies will require more detailed models of the relationships between applied water, crop production, and irrigation efficiency. Economic factors, particularly the opportunity costs of water, will need to be explicitly incorporated into the analysis. In some cases the analysis may involve multi-objective optimization. The increased complexity of the analysis will necessitate the use of more sophisticated analytical tools. This paper examines the underlying logic of this alternative approach to irrigation management, exploresthe factors that will compel its adoption, and examines its economic and environmental implications. Two important concerns, sustainability and risk, are discussed in some depth. Operational practices for implementing the new approach are contrasted with current, conventional irrigation practices. Some of the analytical tools that might be employed in the search for optimum irrigation strategies are reviewed. Finally, the limited and largely intuitive efforts that have already been made to implement this new paradigm are discussed.


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