Economic Evaluation of Alternative (low-water use) Crops for the Great Basin

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $99,723.50
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Western
State: Utah
Principal Investigator:
Carol Bishop
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Dr. Kynda Curtis
Utah State University

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: barley, rye, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Fruits: grapes
  • Vegetables: onions
  • Additional Plants: native plants


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Education and Training: extension, workshop
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, farm-to-institution, risk management

    Proposal abstract:

    In the western United States, hydrological cycles have changed considerably in the last fifty years, due in a large part to anthropogenic intervention, and research predicts water supplies will reach a crisis stage (Barnett et al., 2008). As populations in western states increase, civil supply, recreation, hydropower generation, and other in-stream uses all increase competition for available supplies away from agricultural uses (Diaz and Anderson, 1995). Water is an increasingly scarce commodity in the west, and as more water is diverted from agricultural use to residential and industrial purposes, producers in the Great Basin are facing the challenge of sustaining the economic viability of their enterprise with less water. One example is Walker Lake, a rare freshwater terminal lake in northern Nevada, one of six in the world (Partners, 2007). Its inflows come from the West Fork and East Fork of the Walker River, which have their origins in the Sierra Nevada of California, and join in the Mason Valley of Nevada to become the Walker River, terminating at Walker Lake. In the last one hundred and fifty years, water has been diverted from these inflows for irrigation purposes at five major agricultural areas along the rivers. These diversions have resulted in dramatic drops in lake level (145 feet) and in dramatic increases in the lake salinity. The increased salinity and lower lake levels are negatively impacting the habitat and populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii henshawi), a federally recognized threatened species and the Nevada state fish (Dickerson and Vinyard, 1999). Tui chubs (Gila bicolor) and other native aquatic life are being severely reduced in number (Marioni, Tracy, and Zimmerman, 2005); some species of zooplankton, an important link in aquatic food webs, have become extirpated (Beutel et al., 2001). Walker Lake is one of few terminal lakes with an endemic trout fishery, and these changes are negatively impacting recreational use of the lake. These changes also have negative consequences on the more than two hundred species of migrating birds that visit the lake, a biannual food and rest stop on the Pacific Flyway for thousands of birds and a favorite destination of bird watchers (Partners 2007). Agricultural water rights have been over allocated in the Walker River Basin, such that in years of 100% snow pack, only 84% of the allocated water rights can be met. Policies have been used in arid climates in the west to enforce water conservation on agricultural producers utilizing irrigation such as the Groundwater Management Act of 1980 in Arizona; these policies are not always effective (Wilson and Needham, 2006). Changes in water management are an alternative to imposing policy such as laws and taxes. Managers have investigated several options: recycling, desalinization, underground storage, conservation, and water marketing among others (Hanak, 2007). Practices imposed by policies and water managers are one side of the coin. Equally, and possibly more important, are practices adopted by the producers themselves. These consist of reducing the amounts of water applied (deficit irrigation), changing the way the water is delivered, or switching to an alternative crop that uses less acre footage. By planting alternative crops, producers may reduce the amount of irrigation water they consume; this provides a way for producers to remain solvent in regions where water is scarce and they are under social pressure to reduce use (Gaur et al., 2008). By educating those individuals involved with relaying pertinent information to agricultural producers about alternative low water use crops and the associated decision-making tools that have been developed to facilitate implementation of lower water use crops, not only can the efficiency of resource utilization be improved but agricultural communities in the Great Basin can sustain their economic viability. This program falls under the Western SARE annual project funding goal of building agricultural professionals skills and abilities in the economics of alternative farming systems. This program also falls under all five Western SARE Program Goals for funded projects as described on page 2 of the request for applications.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    • Understand of economic, political, and environmental benefits of reducing water use in agriculture
    • Understand the basic agronomics of alternative crops available to producers in the Great Basin
    • Understand the components of evaluating the economic feasibility of low water use crops
    • Ability to use the IRRIG-AID spreadsheet
    • Create plan to introduce seminar curriculum and other SARE resources into producer programming
    • Work one-on-one with producers to evaluate the economic feasibility of alternative low water use crops on their farm/ranch
    • Provide an overview of the benefits of utilizing the IRRIG-AID spreadsheet tool and demonstrate its use to producers
    • Assist agricultural producers in implementing low water use crops on their farm/ranch
    • Assist producers with the measurement of changes in water use and resulting environmental improvements such as water and soil quality
    • Assist producers with the measurement of changes in profitability and economic sustainability of alterative crop use

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.