Water Risk Hotspots for Agriculture: The Case of the Southwest United States

Screen Shot 2016-09-27 at 11.13.07 AMSeptember 28, 2016, Oakland, Calif. – Despite being the United States’ most arid region, the US Southwest – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah – is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Yet nearly 75% of total cropland in the region, and an even higher percentage of total agricultural productivity, depends on supplemental irrigation. Meanwhile, climate change and increased water demand are putting pressure on the region’s limited water supplies and raising concerns about the viability of agriculture in the region.

The Pacific Institute, in coordination with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), recently completed a case study on the possible impacts of future water risks on agriculture in the US Southwest by mid-century and provides recommendations for reducing future water shortage risks.

The report finds that while the Southwest will likely continue to be a major agricultural producer for the next 50 years, it will be impacted by more variable and uncertain water supplies and increased water demand. Additionally, total irrigated area is likely to decline due to limits on water supplies and urban encroachment, with lower value, water-intensive field and forage crops likely to experience the greatest reductions.

Livestock and dairy are economically important to Southwest agriculture and are especially vulnerable to water shortages and climate change. Feed prices are likely to rise, thereby increasing costs for producers, while climate change is likely to alter the location and productivity of pasture and rangeland, the distribution of livestock parasites and pathogens, and the thermal environment of animals. Trade and employment may also be affected, although projections remain uncertain.

These projected changes will be less disruptive if meaningful steps are taken to mitigate economic losses, protect ecosystems, and invest in productive strategies, and the report provides several key recommendations, including improving urban and agricultural water-use efficiency, improving groundwater management, developing water banks, and pursuing water transfers that acknowledge and adequately mitigate possible adverse impacts on communities and ecosystems.

Download the report here.


The Pacific Institute is a global water think tank that creates and advances solutions to some of the world’s most pressing water challenges through interdisciplinary research and by partnering with a variety of stakeholders. Founded in 1987 and based in Oakland, California, the Pacific Institute envisions a world in which society, the economy, and the environment have the water they need to thrive now and in the future.