How to Conserve Water in Agriculture 

The Comprehensive Guide

Water is the hidden ingredient in our agricultural system. More than anything else, it’s what determines how much food we can grow in any given region, and how sustainably we can grow it. Since agriculture uses more water than any other industry (more than 90% of total water use in some U.S. states) conserving water in agriculture can have net positive effects throughout the environment and the economy.

But while conserving water in the home is easy – using low-flow showerheads, choosing native plants instead of lawns – figuring out how to conserve water in agriculture is more complicated. Is it up to the grower to use more efficient irrigation systems? Investors to put their money into water-saving technologies? Or food brands to promote the sale of more sustainable crops? Or, is it all of the above?

According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, “Agricultural water supply is emerging as a critical natural resource issue. Irrigated agriculture is essential in meeting our food and fiber production needs.” And according to the U.N., “There is enough water available for our global future needs, but this world picture hides large areas of absolute water scarcity which affects billions of people.”

By conserving water throughout the agricultural industry, growers can spend less money irrigating their crops, investors and lenders can feel more confident in their land deals, and organizations can mitigate the effects of water scarcity on their supply chains. Ultimately, conserving water in agriculture is one of the most important tools available to ensure a safe and reliable food supply, and prepare for the worst effects of climate change.

This guide is comprised of actionable information around water conservation in the agricultural industry. From the impact of new regulations on groundwater resources, to the rise of smart water markets and new technologies, it will take a concerted effort across all of these sectors to build a more sustainable future.



With optimism, open and transparent data, and a willingness to collaborate, a more water-resilient future is possible.


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Importance of Water Conservation in Agriculture Now and Into The Future

Water conservation has always been a concern for farmers in drought-prone regions, but the worsening impacts of climate change has exacerbated the problem. Now, as much as half of the global population will experience “severe water stress” by 2030, including some of America’s most productive farming regions in the West.

Without taking steps to address water scarcity, the agricultural industry will be at the center of the issue, with disruptions in rainfall patterns, sea-level rise, and depleted aquifers all impacting the availability of freshwater resources.

As much as $425 billion will be at stake if investors don’t make a plan to account for water risk in their portfolios.

Learn more about the importance of water conservation in this complete article.

Why Agricultural Irrigation and Water Conservation Are Intrinsically Linked

The immense quantities of water used on U.S. farms means that water conservation can’t be talked about without taking a close look at the agricultural sector. At every step of the supply chain, there’s the potential for water waste – and room for improvement.

Two weak links are water transport and storage. The canal system that transports water throughout the West could be responsible for water leakage of as much as 10 percent, while water that’s stored in reservoirs evaporates more quickly than flowing water.

One of the most positive trends in recent decades is the shift toward drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, which are more efficient than flood irrigation.

Read more about the link between agricultural irrigation and water conservation here.

Sustainable Water Technology and Practice Advancements for Agriculture

Sustainable technologies are already being applied to agricultural practices in different ways around the world. Water-stressed countries like Israel and Kuwait have turned to desalination plants to meet their freshwater needs, while others rely on demand-side management – such as measuring evapotranspiration data – to keep waste down

No new technology is going to provide a global solution to water scarcity, in large part because stakeholders in various industries don’t see eye to eye on how to address the issue. But by collaborating across sectors – and by supporting open and transparent data collection to break down data silos – these challenges can be overcome.

Read more about sustainable water technologies and practices here.

3 Barriers to Sustainable Agriculture Adoption

Sustainable agriculture is a necessary response to climate risk and water scarcity, but several types of barriers complicate its adoption:

  • Social Barriers
  • Financial Barriers
  • Policy Barriers

Ag lenders and investors can work with borrowers to collect data and develop pathways to sustainable practices. Ag professionals who don’t proactively shift to sustainable practices will be at greater risk of drought, flooding, soil degradation, and other material risks. Higher water costs, more onerous effects of regulations, reduced crop yield, and revenue volatility may befall farms with delayed investment in sustainable practices.

Read more about sustainable agriculture barriers here.

The Future of Water Scarcity in Agriculture For Lenders

The impact of water scarcity on lending is beginning to be felt in many parts of the U.S., where farmers may be forced to choose between growing less water-intensive crops, or letting parts of their fields go fallow. In turn, lenders may receive less loan requests, or be faced with higher-risk loans that add uncertainty to their portfolio.

The U.S.D.A reports that family farms with under $350,000 in annual gross cash farm income (GCFI) represent 90% of U.S. farms, but struggle to maintain a living. Lenders will have to be more attuned to water risk, both in order to protect their own portfolios, and to help small farmers stay in business by navigating water scarcity issues.

The Water Security Platform is designed with this in mind, making it easier for lenders to access the data they need to make more informed financial decisions.

Learn more about the future of water scarcity for lenders and investors here.

Water Conservation in Agriculture Sector – Historical Failures and Modern Solutions

Based on current estimates, we could see a planet with 10 billion people on it by 2050, requiring agricultural output to increase by 70%. That will be a difficult target to meet when there is already an expected 40% shortfall of water resources by 2030.

It’s time to “redo the math” and work out new sustainable solutions to increasing water scarcity. Regulations such as SGMA, empower local watersheds to develop their own sustainability plans, while the 7 states in the Colorado River Compact are renegotiating water deals.

Many of these regulations are very restrictive to the stakeholders involved. However, access to better information and technologies that are newly accessible can help remedy the hardships that these conservation-driven regulations inflict. Modern solutions can be applied to an ongoing problem.

Read more about modern solutions to past failures here.

Future Methods of Conserving Water in Agriculture

Just as the Internet of Things has made it easier to monitor water use in the home, new technologies are encouraging more efficient water use in agriculture. From smart water sensors on the ground to drones and satellites in the air, farmers can access better ET (evapotranspiration) data and apply more targeted irrigation methods.

Other technologies include desalination and wastewater reuse, and precision agriculture techniques. There’s also indoor farming, which relies on soil-free hydroponics and CEA (controlled-environment agriculture) to produce food year-round.

Learn more about future methods of conserving water in agriculture here.

The Future of Smart Markets for Water Resources

Water rights have been a contentious issue ever since farmers first started laying claim to land in the American West – and in some states, they haven’t been updated in over a century. In California, water rights are so complicated that they can lead to undesirable outcomes, such as incentivizing farmers to pump more groundwater than they need, in order not to lose their place in line for future allocations.

Some watersheds have begun implementing smart water markets, which use modern technologies, such as algorithmic trading, to encourage more efficient water use. Just like smart electricity markets, they match buyers and sellers, so that farmers can sell their surplus water at market rates, or bank it to get credits for future years.

Read more about smart water markets here.

Or, download our free ebook.

How Land Deals Tie into Agricultural Water Risk and Resilience

When it comes to farming, land is just one part of the equation. Crops need water to grow, and regions experiencing severe water stress may see a decline in the value of agricultural land and associated losses of billions of dollars.

More due diligence will be needed to assess the water risk of agricultural land before approving loans, particularly when it comes to high-value crops that may no longer be viable in a water-stressed environment. By pricing water risk into loans and land deals, lenders and investors can play a major role in shifting the agricultural sector towards more sustainable farming practices and a more water-resilient future.

Learn more about how land deals tie into agricultural water risk here.

Securing Water for Food Production

Food security can be viewed as one of the most consequential benefits of water conservation to address. Former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban-Ki Moon, made the case that “interconnects between water, energy, and food are among the greatest challenges that mankind faces.” This way of thinking about things – the Water-Energy-Food Nexus – ties together everything from biofuel production to forestry and mining.

In an age of increased water scarcity, food brands and agricultural investors will have to take a more holistic approach to the supply chain, and understand the impact that water scarcity issues can have on the cost of land, livestock feed, and other inputs.

Read the full post about securing water for food production here.

Groundwater Recharge


Groundwater recharge is the practice of artificially replenishing groundwater resources such as underground aquifers. It is an important practice that can provide drought resistance, prevent ground subsidence, can contribute to a steady supply of fresh, usable water, and protect natural ecosystems that industries such as agriculture rely on.

This process would regularly happen naturally through rain and snowmelt. However, recharge has to happen at a greater rate than water is pumped out of the aquifer. With droughts and population increase forcing farmers to pump more groundwater than can be naturally replenished, artificial groundwater recharge is necessary.

Read the full post about groundwater recharge and its benefits here.

Changes in California Agricultural Water Conservation Post SGMA

In 2014, California enacted a law called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, intended to address aquifer depletion and other undesirable outcomes. Each basin in the state will be required to create its own Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) and groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) to protect groundwater resources.

While these rules are expected to have beneficial effects on groundwater resources, in the short-term they may lead to changing land-use patterns and planting schedules as farmers adapt to pumping limits and reporting requirements.

New tools, ranging from smart water meters on groundwater pumps, to smart markets for groundwater banking and trading, will fill a need for farmers and investors alike. But it will be more important than ever for stakeholders to have a centralized tool they can use to navigate this patchwork of regulations.

Learn more about the changes coming to California due to SGMA.

How Can Agriculture Conserve Water Into The Distant Future

Water stress can impact the world in a variety of different ways, at the local, national, and global levels. In addition to its impacts on agricultural production, water stress can lead to degraded wildlife habitats, reduced river flows, salinization, and more.

It can even contribute to the feedback loop of climate change, in which new weather patterns lead to increased droughts and other extreme weather events. But by working with nature, rather than against it, agriculture professionals can play a role in reducing overall water use and associated water stress. Practices such as dry farming, conservation tillage, and managed aquifer recharge can conserve water in the near and distant future.

Read more about agricultural water management practices here.

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Data is the thread that links all of these topics together. In learning more about regulations before closing a land deal, or assessing the water risk of a borrower before closing a loan, having the right data at your fingertips is key.

But with so much to keep track of from region to region – even parcel to parcel – it can be hard to find a central database or consultant that has all of the information that is needed.

AQUAOSO believes that a comprehensive water security platform is the way forward. The unique geospatial tool is designed to provide real-time information on water risk on a by-parcel basis.

Browse our resources to learn more about how to conserve water in agriculture or reach out to our team for a free demo of our platform.


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