Mark Riley 2015-04-29 01:31:10
U.S. agriculture faces many challenges in order to generate the food needed for a growing world population while maintaining stewardship of our natural resources. The drought of 2014 impacted many highly productive regions, including numerous areas in California and Texas. California’s 2014 drought led to an estimated total statewide economic cost of $2.2 billion, including a loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs. These economic losses were mitigated through the short-term solution of replacing the “lost” 6.6 million acre-feet of surface water with 5.1 million acre-feet of groundwater—the resulting lack of 1.5 million acre-feet of delivered water directly impacted production. This short-term solution of using groundwater also has consequences for future water availability. Compounded with the challenge of addressing widespread drought is the mounting crisis of a shortage of well-trained irrigation engineers. Irrigation infrastructure is not enough Irrigation will play an increasing role in providing critical support for agriculture by allowing farmers to maintain predictable productivity in the face of increasingly unpredictable precipitation patterns. In recent years (in 17 western states alone), irrigated agriculture has generated $67 billion of production on 55 million irrigated acres. Since 1997, the amount of irrigated land has not changed significantly; however, the size of farms that use irrigation has generally increased. In 2013, approximately $2.6 billion was spent on irrigation infrastructure, divided among new expansion, water conservation, energy conservation, and scheduled replacement. On-farm energy requirements for pumping cost an additional $2.7 billion in 2013. However, the presence of irrigation infrastructure alone is not a guarantee of productivity. In 2013, approximately 12% of the farms that use irrigation (17% of total irrigated acres) had an interruption that diminished their crop yields. These interruptions were caused by shortage of surface water (54%), shortage of groundwater (21%), or irrigation equipment failure (25%). In total, 9.7 million acres were affected. At least half of U.S. irrigated crop acreage is equipped with less efficient, traditional irrigation systems. Inadequate water application leads to crop stress, while excess water contributes to nutrient leaching, runoff, and soil erosion. Sustainability of irrigated agriculture will depend in large part on whether producers adopt more efficient irrigation systems that integrate improved on-farm water management practices with efficient application technology. The role of irrigation engineers Farmers, ranchers, policy makers, and the public rely on the agricultural scientific community to develop new solutions and deliver those solutions to the field. In particular, careful management of our precious water resources is needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, we are not prepared to meet this challenge due to a lack of adequately trained irrigation specialists. A large proportion of the PhD-level irrigation engineers in the U.S. are reaching retirement age, with few individuals in the pipeline who can replace their expertise in agricultural water use with the skills to effectively lead the transition to more efficient systems. Academic institutions, USDA-ARS facilities, and private sector firms have difficulty finding qualified engineers to fill their open positions. In addition, the peak wave of retirements has not yet arrived, but it will be here in the next three to five years. About 30 years ago, the USDA-ARS mounted an initiative through which irrigation engineers were trained in partnership with academic institutions. Those individuals are now approaching retirement age, so this is the right time to train the next generation of engineers to meet the needs of water management in U.S. agriculture. However, few graduate students currently study agricultural water use efficiency, due in large part to the comparatively low level of funding available for research. Outstanding students often migrate to other research areas that have larger federal support and more funding for assistantships and fellowships. This imbalance should be considered a national challenge, as the lack of expertise will hinder our ability to design and implement efficient schemes for conveyance of water to farms, on-farm water utilization, and efficient drainage. Expertise is also needed for enhancing crop per drop through development of canal and reservoir structural improvements, remote monitoring and control, irrigation scheduling, tailwater return systems, and irrigation system improvements. Therefore, the two biggest challenges are the low numbers of students in the pipeline and the lack of federal research funds to support the development of research programs and the training of graduate students. Academic institutions need to increase the number of graduates to prevent the loss of active expertise in this critical area. Support for experienced faculty must also be available so that they can train the new PhD cohorts while educating undergraduate and graduate students. What we need to do now Fundamentally, we need to encourage more undergraduate engineering students to pursue irrigation and agricultural water resources as a career. There are numerous career opportunities at the BS level for well-trained agricultural and biological engineers to work in industry. Nationally, there is an enormous need for increasing the training of the agricultural workforce. According to NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy, while universities are producing graduates in agricultural fields at a rate of 30,000 per year, the private sector needs these new employees at a rate of 30,000 per month. Specifically, a targeted effort is needed to train the next generation of BS, MS, and PhD irrigation engineers through support of research, instruction, and extension faculty. Such an effort would address the short-term workforce need for faculty and USDA-ARS researchers while positively impacting the private sector. Outstanding engineering students should be encouraged to pursue this direction when making their career decisions. Students in the middle stages of their education must be supported as they learn from experienced mentors. Junior and senior faculty must see a clear path for available funding that supports the development and continuation of research programs. Such an integrated effort should also include the following: identifying potential PhD engineers early in their training (typically while they are working toward their BS degree), support of graduate studies (such as a targeted USDA National Needs Fellowship program both for MS and PhD programs), and support of competitive research funding for post-doctoral scholars and for early career and established faculty. We must also tap into the tremendous knowledge base of our senior irrigation engineers to facilitate the translation of expertise to the next generation. If progress is not made, and soon, then individuals without irrigation engineering expertise will be designing, implementing, and evaluating how we best use our precious water resources—at a time when we need to feed more people while facing ever greater scrutiny of the impact of agriculture on the environment. ASABE Member Mark Riley, Professor and Head, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA, email@example.com.
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