Study on Water-saving Benefits of Flood Irrigation

Many migrating birds depend on flood-irrigated fields as places to fuel up during their long flights between winter and breeding grounds.

University of Wyoming researchers recently published an article about how flood-irrigation benefits wildlife in the summer issue of Western Confluence. Western Confluence is a magazine that communicates science and policy understanding generated at academic institutions to the people who are working in in the field of natural resources conservation. Below is an excerpt from the article titled “The True Value of Flood Irrigation: What’s seen as wasteful water use has hidden benefits” that appeared in the summer 2016 issue.

Published August 9, 2016 in Western Confluence

Ranchers today in the Upper Green River Basin say they are modern-day beavers. Typically, tributaries to the Green River, fed by mountain snowmelt, surge in May and June and dwindle to nearly nothing in late summer and fall. However, as ranchers divert water out of these streams to flood fields and irrigate native hay for winter livestock fodder, the water seeps into the soil and makes its way slowly back to the streams later in the summer. That process, slowing the water as it moves downstream, mimics how beaver dams, once abundant in the area, trap water and let it seep out through the summer.

Although ranchers have long believed that flooding fields benefits wildlife through increases in late season flow, nobody had proved it. In fall of 2013, University of Wyoming Agricultural and Applied Economics master’s student Spencer Blevins set out to do just that. Blevins’ goal was to take a first step toward placing a dollar value on the non-agricultural benefits of flood irrigation. How much are those benefits worth to people who enjoy hunting, fishing, and birding?

Members of UW faculty involved in the Upper Green River Basin Conservation Exchange, an ongoing effort to establish a market for private investment in ecosystem services, guided Blevins’ work. The exchange will pay ranchers for the ecosystem services their ranches provide. Blevins’ study was designed to determine whether the non-agricultural benefits of flood irrigation were significant enough that a conservation investor might be willing to pay for them.

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