Tuesday, June 22, 2021

INL researchers help develop irrigation modernization tool

Modernization of irrigation of the West's aging irrigation system has been identified as a way to conserve water, produce power and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Reinvestment in the nation’s irrigation systems has numerous benefits. It can simultaneously promote the economic well-being of farmers and rural communities, generate more renewable energy, and advance environmental stewardship. Plus, such efforts could cut carbon emissions in the farm sector, a priority for the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture, as our nation works to combat climate change.
That’s why the Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), Idaho National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have created a new software tool, IrrigationViz, to help analyze the costs and benefits of irrigation modernization.
Irrigation technology has developed to the point where pressurized pipes can deliver water for irrigation while generating in-conduit hydropower that can be used to power electric pumps that currently rely on diesel, and in the future, also power electric tractors and combines. The rights of way for these pipes can also be used for fiberoptic cable, bringing broadband to rural areas that may currently not have high-speed internet options.
INL and PNNL’s IrrigationViz is a decision support and visualization tool that enables users to estimate how much water is lost by the current system, how much water would be saved by specific investments, and how much hydropower potential there is in the system. It also estimates higher value crops that could be planted based on the improved water reliability, water purification and habitat benefits of including wetlands, and connectivity between surface and groundwater sources.

This tool can help interested parties produce master plans, enabling them to identify the highest priority projects for their system. Using a combination of public and local data and geographic information systems, the tool helps irrigators produce the plans needed to access federal funding programs, such as those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The purpose of the tool is to help communities identify the system designs that are right for them,” said Thomas Mosier, INL’s Energy Systems group lead. “The hope is that our tool can help stakeholders identify opportunities to achieve benefits for farmers, local communities and the environment. There used to be this one-size-fits-all modernization paradigm. The approach we’re seeing today is much more nuanced to the local context.”

The two national labs began collaborating in 2018 to find ways that hydropower could enable modernization benefits nationwide and especially across the Western United States, said PNNL researcher Bo Saulsbury.

“It’s really exciting to provide a tool to help assess and realize both short- and long-term benefits,” he said. “Near-term returns include more local jobs, higher profits for farmers, investments in rural communities and increased water supply for various uses. Reducing the carbon footprint of agricultural operations, increasing renewable energy generation and promoting environmental sustainability and community resilience are examples of long-term benefits.”

Federal investment in water and irrigation projects dates back nearly 150 years and is in large part responsible for establishing the rural economy in the United States. A vast system of reservoirs, canals, headgates, levees and culverts provides water to roughly 18.7 million acres of farmland, serving one-third of the U.S. population and generating half of the nation’s total crop revenue.

Since the early 1970s, however, the country’s irrigation infrastructure has remained largely unchanged. Billions of dollars are lost every year by a system that, on average, loses about 30% of its water to seepage and evaporation. Meanwhile, the demand for water has grown, not just from irrigators but conservationists, recreationists, industry and municipalities.

Agriculture is a major user of groundwater and surface water in the United States, accounting for approximately 37% of the nation's consumptive water use and 80% in the West. Efficient irrigation systems and water management practices can help maintain farm profitability in an era of increasingly limited and more costly water supplies.

Recognizing the economic constraints many canal companies and farmers face, WPTO is committed to offering irrigators the decision-making resources they need before they move forward with critical investments.