Assessing landscape scale heterogeneity in irrigation water use with remote sensing and in-situ monitoring

Timothy Foster, Ivo Zution Gonçalves, Isidro Campos, Christopher M.u Neale, Nicholas Brozovic

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Understanding how irrigation is used across agricultural landscapes is essential to support efforts to grow more food while reducing pressures on limited freshwater resources. However, to date, few studies have analyzed the underlying spatial and temporal variability in farmers' individual water use decisions at a landscape scale. We compare estimates of irrigation water requirements derived using state-of-the-art remote sensing models with metered abstraction records for 1,400 fields over a 13-year period in the U.S. state of Nebraska, one of the world's most intensively irrigated agricultural regions. We show that farmers' observed water use decisions often diverge significantly from biophysical estimates of crop irrigation requirements. In particular, our findings are consistent with widespread use of water conservation practices by farmers in drought years as an adaptive response to rising irrigation costs and regulatory water supply constraints in these years. We also demonstrate that, in any individual year, farmers' observed water use exhibits large field-to-field variability, which cannot be explained fully by differences in weather, soil type, crop choice, or technology. Our results highlight the value of using both in-situ monitoring and remote sensing to evaluate farmers' individual water use behavior and understand likely responses to future changes in climate or water policy. Moreover, our findings also demonstrate potential challenges for current efforts in developed and developing countries to apply model-based approaches for field-level water use accounting and enforcement of irrigation water rights.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article number024004
    JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
    Issue number2
    Early online date21 Nov 2018
    Publication statusPublished - 21 Nov 2018


    • agriculture
    • irrigation
    • monitoring
    • remote sensing
    • water


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