Coupling landscape water storage and supplemental irrigation to increase productivity and improve environmental stewardship in the U.S. Midwest

John M. Baker, Timothy J. Griffis, Tyson E. Ochsner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations

Abstract

Agriculture must increase production for a growing population while simultaneously reducing its environmental impacts. These goals need not be in tension with one another. Here we outline a vision for improving both the productivity and environmental performance of agriculture in the U.S. Midwest, also known as the Corn Belt. Mean annual precipitation has increased throughout the region over the past 50 years, consistent with climate models that attribute the increase to a warming troposphere. Stream gauge data indicate that higher precipitation has been matched or exceeded by higher stream flows, contributing to flooding, soil loss, and excessive nutrient flux to the Gulf of Mexico. We propose increasing landscape hydrologic storage through construction of ponds and restoration of wetlands to retain water for supplemental irrigation while also reducing flood risks. Primary productivity is proportional to transpiration, and analysis shows that in the U.S. Midwest both can be sustainably increased with supplemental irrigation. The proposed strategy should reduce interannual yield variability by limiting losses due to transient drought, while facilitating adoption of cropping systems that "perennialize" the landscape to take advantage of the full potential growing season. When implemented in concert, these practices should reduce the riverine nitrogen export that is a primary cause of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Erosive sediment losses should also be reduced through the combination of enhanced hydrologic storage and increased vegetative cover. Successful implementation would require watershed-scale coordination among producers and landowners. An obvious mechanism to encourage this is governmental farm policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberW05301
JournalWater Resources Research
Volume48
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - 2012

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