Jan. 6, 2022 -- Farmer Vulnerability to Irrigation Water Loss in the American West

New semester, new paper! Our article studying farmer vulnerability to irrigation water loss is in print. An exciting output from my MS work with Dr. Zhao Ma and co-authors Dr. Morey Burnham, Dr. Meg du Bray, Dr. Vicken Hillis, and Dr. Trina Running. Link: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-021-01586-4

This was the first paper to assess farmer vulnerability to an actual shift in water availability in the US. This is important for understanding how we can design programs and policy to support farmers in a changing climate!

So, what did we find?

In a previous paper, we found that Idaho farmers lost about 0.5% of their income each time they lost 1% of their irrigation water. Some folks were more vulnerable and took a bigger income hit - others were more resilient. In this paper, we asked - what made some less vulnerable?

Farmers with higher adaptive capacity & lower sensitivity were less vulnerable to income loss when losing groundwater. What does that mean? Basically, adaptive capacity measures how well farmers can react to water loss - sensitivity measures how dependent they are on that water. Adaptive capacity can mean things like knowledge of the system but also things like money and time available. For example, we found that farmers who face a variety of other economic and environmental challenges were more likely to be highly impacted by the water cuts. Sensitivity measures how dependent farmers are on the groundwater that's being cut - in this case, we found that folks with higher income diversity (more crops or an off-farm job) were much less sensitive to water cuts than others.

Of particular interest in the irrigated American west, we found that farmers with center pivots were MORE vulnerable to the water cuts - why? Because they had already dramatically improved efficiency on their farms, and now they were asked to squeeze out 13% more. Among other things, policies must be sensitive to past regulatory and market regimes - if one group of farmers sought out efficiency and they struggle more under a new policy, what does that say to folks moving forward? Historically, farmers have said they're more worried about policies responding to climate change than climate change - we measured how they fared under one such policy. We concluded that policymakers should focus on increasing farmer adaptive capacity and reducing sensitivity. That might look like expanded education or incentive programs that help farmers reduce their irrigation water demand. It might look like programs designed to increase crop diversity on farms. Farmers will make the changes they need to to stay in business, but they need the tools.

Folks without institutional access can see the full paper here: https://rdcu.be/cEp4m. Folks with access to Environmental Management can find it on the journal's website: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00267-021-01586-4

For the previous paper I mentioned that described the policy shift that led to all this and documented farmer adaptation and outcomes, see our article in Environmental Research Letters: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab4ccc