Water Study Explores New Drought Solutions

When water is scarce, most producers just try to make the best use of what they’ve got, typically by making structural improvements like installing tanks or drilling wells. At the University of Wyoming, Ellen Yeatman wondered if there was another way – a way to prevent water scarcity from becoming a dire issue in the first place – and she won the Western Agricultural Economics Association Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award for her work.

“Over the past century and a half, water infrastructure projects, such as dams, trans-basin pipelines and canal systems, have been built to capture and distribute limited water supplies. Now, infrastructure-based solutions have been exhausted,” says Yeatman. “Water managers of the 21st century are turning to more creative water management solutions to deal with the growing water demand and supply imbalance.”

Taking inspiration from an earlier Colorado River Basin conservation pilot program, Yeatman explored how a water demand management program might impact dry areas.

Water demand management is a conservation model based not on building new structures, but on the idea that if you save water now, there will be more for later. In these programs, producers are compensated for voluntarily reducing their use of water. The water saved is stored and then released when and where it’s needed.

The concept of demand management may be simple, but reality is a lot more complicated. Yeatman’s goal was to try to give voice to those complex variables.

Rather than focusing entirely on how demand management might help in drought, Yeatman took a more holistic view, investigating the impacts such a program might have on ranchers, their land, and the local economy. Furthermore, Yeatman wanted to know: What would make producers want to participate? Would everyone participate if they got paid enough dollars per acre-foot of water saved (an acre-foot being how much water there is in an acre of water a foot deep)?

“I hypothesized that ranchers would participate if the dollar per acre-foot of consumptive water use savings was high enough…and my hypothesis was wrong,” Yeatman said. “I found that policymakers and water use regulators cannot rely on putting the highest number out there, but instead must consider the ecological, social, and risk factors considered by ranchers and farmers alike in dry areas.”

Even though there are a lot of variables, says Yeatman, they are still all connected:

“Ecological health is determining your economic outcomes, and if you can sustain the ecosystem services that your agricultural land provides, you will be more resilient to withstand drought impacts, flooding impacts, cold snaps, etc.,” says Yeatman. “AND you could eventually be paid for the ecosystem services that you provide, such as maintaining healthy wetlands and keeping water instream when it is needed.”


Most demand management program models don’t really consider how using less water affects producers differently. Yeatman knew that in the ag world, one size does not fit all. She wanted to improve on the typical blanket model so that policymakers might better understand the potential impact of these kinds of programs, and what would make people want to participate.

To understand how a new conservation plan might affect people differently, Yeatman interviewed a variety of producers, mostly ranchers with a hay crop. Some grew grass hay, some alfalfa. Some of them flood irrigated, and others used a pivot. Yeatman also made sure to include ranchers with both bottom land and bench land.


Yeatman found that producers’ reasons for participation in demand management vary almost as much as the people themselves. The short-term financial concerns were only a small part of their decision. They were also worried about long-term financial costs, of course, but it wasn’t just about the money.

Yeatman says producers also considered things like how their larger economic area would be affected. For example, if a rancher’s reduced water use leads to a smaller hay crop, he might not hire the custom haying crew that he’s always used – and that effects the producer, the custom crew, and the greater economy that they are both a part of.

According to Yeatman, “Another important decision-making factor for producers and policy makers is the impact on irrigation-dependent wetlands and return flow. Return flow is the portion of water applied on fields via irrigation that makes its way back to the stream later in the season. Flood irrigation in particular creates and sustains wetlands, providing crucial riparian habitat in a dry region, and flood irrigation supports return flows, providing crucial late-season flows when streams are starting to run dry.”

“Approximately 70 percent of today’s wetlands occur on private lands in a region where public lands dominate land ownership,” says Yeatman, “and 60 to 80 percent of wildlife heavily depend on this wetland habitat.”

A demand management program that doesn’t account for these factors could be detrimental to wetlands and their wildlife, and it could cause a significant unintended ripple effect through the agricultural economy at both small-town and big-business levels.

According to Yeatman, if ranchers are weighing all these details in their decisions, then a conservation model needs to incorporate them as well.

“Differences in economic and ecological characteristics can be significant,” says Yeatman. “Any model that fails to account for these differences would lack credibility with ranchers, conservation stakeholders and policymakers alike.”


Yeatman’s work has already inspired further research, including one recent study by the University of Wyoming in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, and the University of Wyoming Extension Service. This study examines the potential economic impacts of demand management programs in more detail.

For now, demand management programs are mostly just an idea, but Yeatman anticipates that more research will be done with this new model to understand the potential economic and ecological outcomes. And the better they can calculate outcomes, the closer these programs will come to being a reality.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” says Yeatman. “Our agricultural and water resources are stressed without an end in sight…yet this is fostering unprecedented collaboration and creative solutions.”

For Yeatman, this brings hope.

“If ranchers are willing to get out of their comfort zones and accept change in production management, the financial opportunities and incentives out there are great,” she says. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of finding ways to adapt to these changes.”


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