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UCSB research shows more options for reducing water use in agriculture   

UCSB researcher Anna Boser presents her study on agricultural water use in the Central Valley.
Kelly Caylor UCSB
UCSB researcher Anna Boser presents her study on agricultural water use in the Central Valley.

A new study out of UC Santa Barbara looked at how to reduce the amount of water used for agriculture. It finds that farming practices have a substantial impact.

California is known for growing the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, but it takes a lot of water to make that happen. With declining groundwater levels and a changing climate, the state needs solutions.

UCSB Professor Kelly Caylor said the vast majority of water in California is used for agriculture.

“About 80% of the total water that we capture and use as a state ends up going into food production,” Caylor said.

He said it’s important to know where the water is going and how to use it efficiently, and that’s where PhD student Anna Boser comes in.

“I set out to study 'How can we save water in agriculture in the California Central Valley' where it’s such a pressing issue,” Boser said.

She said the two most commonly cited ways for farmers to reduce water use are to switch to less-thirsty crops or plant fewer fields. But both options, she said, drastically change California’s agricultural output and there are other possibilities.

Boser used satellite images and computer models to quantify how much water is actually consumed by the crops, and how much is lost in other ways.

She was surprised to find that water use varied greatly within the agricultural region – even when growing the same crops.

“A farm just down the street that has the same soil type, it has the same climate, it has the same topography, can be using vastly different amounts of water,” she said.

Boser said the variations are likely due to farming practices, and if farmers can increase efficiency, for example, around irrigation or soil preparation, it could save as much water as switching crops or taking fields out of cultivation.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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