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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Volume 18, issue 4
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 1339–1348, 2014
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-18-1339-2014
© Author(s) 2014. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Special issue: Predictions under change: water, earth, and biota in the anthropocene...

Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 18, 1339–1348, 2014
https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-18-1339-2014
© Author(s) 2014. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Research article 07 Apr 2014

Research article | 07 Apr 2014

Irrigation efficiency and water-policy implications for river basin resilience

C. A. Scott1, S. Vicuña2, I. Blanco-Gutiérrez3, F. Meza2, and C. Varela-Ortega3 C. A. Scott et al.
  • 1University of Arizona, School of Geography & Development, and Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, Tucson, Arizona, USA
  • 2Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Centro Interdisciplinario de Cambio Global, Santiago, Chile
  • 3Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Department of Agricultural Economics and Social Sciences, Madrid, Spain

Abstract. Rising demand for food, fiber, and biofuels drives expanding irrigation withdrawals from surface water and groundwater. Irrigation efficiency and water savings have become watchwords in response to climate-induced hydrological variability, increasing freshwater demand for other uses including ecosystem water needs, and low economic productivity of irrigation compared to most other uses. We identify three classes of unintended consequences, presented here as paradoxes. Ever-tighter cycling of water has been shown to increase resource use, an example of the efficiency paradox. In the absence of effective policy to constrain irrigated-area expansion using "saved water", efficiency can aggravate scarcity, deteriorate resource quality, and impair river basin resilience through loss of flexibility and redundancy. Water scarcity and salinity effects in the lower reaches of basins (symptomatic of the scale paradox) may partly be offset over the short-term through groundwater pumping or increasing surface water storage capacity. However, declining ecological flows and increasing salinity have important implications for riparian and estuarine ecosystems and for non-irrigation human uses of water including urban supply and energy generation, examples of the sectoral paradox. This paper briefly considers three regional contexts with broadly similar climatic and water-resource conditions – central Chile, southwestern US, and south-central Spain – where irrigation efficiency directly influences basin resilience. The comparison leads to more generic insights on water policy in relation to irrigation efficiency and emerging or overdue needs for environmental protection.

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