Groundwater Organizations Promote Aquifer Stewardship for U.S. Agriculture

Photo illustration of a well and a crop field

Almost two-thirds of all irrigated U.S. agricultural acreage relied on groundwater as a primary or secondary source of water in 2018, according to data from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). The shared nature of many groundwater resources means pumping by one irrigator affects water availability for nearby irrigators. That connectivity led to the creation of groundwater management districts, natural resource districts, groundwater sustainability agencies, and other groundwater management entities. These organizations play a critical role in determining the future of groundwater-based irrigated agriculture, but national data about their functions has only recently become available.

The 2019 Survey of Irrigation Organizations (SIO) is the first nationally representative Federal data collection effort aimed at organizations that deliver water to farms or influence on-farm groundwater withdrawals. Three USDA agencies (Economic Research Service, NASS, and the Office of the Chief Economist) collaborated to develop and implement the survey.

According to SIO data, there were 735 groundwater organizations in the United States in 2019. Of these, 601 report delivering water to irrigated farms and ranches in addition to engaging in groundwater management (“groundwater and delivery”). The remaining 134 organizations focus solely on managing groundwater resources (“groundwater only”).

Groundwater-only organizations often promote groundwater stewardship by monitoring groundwater conditions, collecting pumping data, and issuing permits for well development. More than 75 percent of groundwater-only organizations monitor groundwater conditions or collect pumping data, but 38 percent of groundwater and delivery organizations engage in these activities. Sixty-one percent of groundwater-only organizations issue permits for well development, but less than 10 percent of groundwater and delivery organizations are involved in well-permitting.

Groundwater organizations that also engage in water delivery are more likely to charge pumping or water rights fees compared with organizations that focus solely on groundwater management. The majority (55 percent) of groundwater and delivery organizations report charging pumping fees. A relatively smaller share (40 percent) of groundwater-only organizations uses pumping or water rights fees to support groundwater management objectives.