Biological Systems Engineering


Date of this Version



Evett, S. R., P. D. Colaizzi, F. R. Lamm, S. A. O’Shaughnessy, D. M. Heeren, T. J. Trout, W. L. Kranz, and X. Lin. 2020. Past, present and future of irrigation on the U.S. Great Plains. Transactions of the ASABE 63(3): 703-729, doi: 10.13031/trans.13620.


Motivated by the need for sustainable water management and technology for next-generation crop production, the future of irrigation on the U.S. Great Plains was examined through the lenses of past changes in water supply, historical changes in irrigated area, and innovations in irrigation technology, management, and agronomy. We analyzed the history of irrigated agriculture through the 1900s to the present day. We focused particularly on the efficiency and water productivity of irrigation systems (application efficiency, crop water productivity, and irrigation water use productivity) as a connection between water resource management and agricultural production. Technology innovations have greatly increased the efficiency of water application, the productivity of water use, and the agricultural productivity of the Great Plains. We also examined the changes in water stored in the High Plains aquifer, which is the region’s principle supply for irrigation water. Relative to other states, the aquifer has been less impacted in Nebraska, despite large increases in irrigated area. Greatly increased irrigation efficiency has played a role in this, but so have regulations and the recharge to the aquifer from the Nebraska Sand Hills and from rivers crossing the state. The outlook for irrigation is less positive in western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. The aquifer in these regions is recharged at rates much less than current pumping, and the aquifer is declining as a result. Improvements in irrigation technology and management plus changes in crops grown have made irrigation ever more efficient and allowed irrigation to continue. There is good reason to expect that future research and development efforts by federal and state researchers, extension specialists, and industry, often in concert, will continue to improve the efficiency and productivity of irrigated agriculture. Public policy changes will also play a role in regulating consumption and motivating on-farm efficiency improvements. Water supplies, while finite, will be stretched much further than projected by some who look only at past rates of consumption. Thus, irrigation will continue to be important economically for an extended period. Sustaining irrigation is crucial to sustained productivity of the Great Plains “bread basket” because on average irrigation doubles the efficiency with which water is turned into crop yields compared with what can be attained in this region with precipitation alone. Lessons learned from the Great Plains are relevant to irrigation in semi-arid and subhumid areas worldwide.