Why are We Irrigating in Places With too Much Water?

Today’s post is a guest blog by Craig Colten. Craig is professor of geography at LSU, Director of Human Dimensions at the Water Institute of the Gulf, and author of Southern Waters: The Limits to Abundance.

Edisto River, SC | Hugo Krispyn

Today’s post is a guest blog by Craig Colten. Craig is professor of geography at LSU, Director of Human Dimensions at the Water Institute of the Gulf, and author of Southern Waters: The Limits to Abundance.


I was driving across eastern Virginia toward the Dismal Swamp a couple of years ago, and I spotted yet another great landscape irony. On the edge of one of the South’s former great wetlands, farmers were irrigating their fields. Artificial rain was falling on ground that had been the target of drainage plans since the colonial era. What may seem shocking in a place noted for having too much water is an increasingly common practice.

Eastern Virginia is not the only place were agriculturalist no longer have the patience to wait for natural rainfall. In southwest North Carolina, I’ve seen irrigation used in places with 80 inches of rainfall a year! Georgia and Mississippi farmers boosted irrigated acreage by over 45 percent between 1997 and 2012. In Tennessee and South Carolina, the totals leapt over 75 percent. The startling issue is that irrigation demands huge amounts of water and this is increasing competition for water across the region.

The American South has long stood in contrast to the West as a region with ample, if not an overabundance of water. The region’s history is replete with struggles to drain wetlands, fight off floods, and control diseases associated with watery environs. Recent droughts have revealed potential shortages and inspired farmers to install equipment to deliver water on demand. Climate change may exacerbate seasonal shortages.

At the same time that farmers are pumping water onto their fields the region’s cities are growing, creating new demands for water. As we watch California grapple with its water crisis, is it time to begin thinking about sensible water management practices in the South and even national-scale agricultural adjustments?

I think a promising arena of water management lies in the geographic adjustment of crops. In places like Louisiana, where massive sums of money are invested to drain sugar cane fields, are there other crops that need more water and would be better suited to the rich alluvial lands along the Mississippi? Are there crops that can be grown on the flanks of the Dismal Swamp that might not survive in southern California with more years of drought, but would thrive in eastern Virginia even without irrigation?

Water managers need to consider not just water availability, current uses, and how we might stretch the supply to meet future needs, but they need to imagine realignments of water uses to fit the local supplies as part of national demands.

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