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Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5066

Prepared in cooperation with the WaterSMART Initiative

Estimating Irrigation Water Use in the Humid Eastern United States

By Sara B. Levin and Phillip J. Zarriello

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (4.74 MB)Abstract

Accurate accounting of irrigation water use is an important part of the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Use Information Program and the WaterSMART initiative to help maintain sustainable water resources in the Nation. Irrigation water use in the humid eastern United States is not well characterized because of inadequate reporting and wide variability associated with climate, soils, crops, and farming practices. To better understand irrigation water use in the eastern United States, two types of predictive models were developed and compared by using metered irrigation water-use data for corn, cotton, peanut, and soybean crops in Georgia and turf farms in Rhode Island. Reliable metered irrigation data were limited to these areas.

The first predictive model that was developed uses logistic regression to predict the occurrence of irrigation on the basis of antecedent climate conditions. Logistic regression equations were developed for corn, cotton, peanut, and soybean crops by using weekly irrigation water-use data from 36 metered sites in Georgia in 2009 and 2010 and turf farms in Rhode Island from 2000 to 2004. For the weeks when irrigation was predicted to take place, the irrigation water-use volume was estimated by multiplying the average metered irrigation application rate by the irrigated acreage for a given crop.

The second predictive model that was developed is a crop-water-demand model that uses a daily soil water balance to estimate the water needs of a crop on a given day based on climate, soil, and plant properties. Crop-water-demand models were developed independently of reported irrigation water-use practices and relied on knowledge of plant properties that are available in the literature. Both modeling approaches require accurate accounting of irrigated area and crop type to estimate total irrigation water use.

Water-use estimates from both modeling methods were compared to the metered irrigation data from Rhode Island and Georgia that were used to develop the models as well as two independent validation datasets from Georgia and Virginia that were not used in model development. Irrigation water-use estimates from the logistic regression method more closely matched mean reported irrigation rates than estimates from the crop-water-demand model when compared to the irrigation data used to develop the equations. The root mean squared errors (RMSEs) for the logistic regression estimates of mean annual irrigation ranged from 0.3 to 2.0 inches (in.) for the five crop types; RMSEs for the crop-water-demand models ranged from 1.4 to 3.9 in. However, when the models were applied and compared to the independent validation datasets from southwest Georgia from 2010, and from Virginia from 1999 to 2007, the crop-water-demand model estimates were as good as or better at predicting the mean irrigation volume than the logistic regression models for most crop types. RMSEs for logistic regression estimates of mean annual irrigation ranged from 1.0 to 7.0 in. for validation data from Georgia and from 1.8 to 4.9 in. for validation data from Virginia; RMSEs for crop-water-demand model estimates ranged from 2.1 to 5.8 in. for Georgia data and from 2.0 to 3.9 in. for Virginia data. In general, regression-based models performed better in areas that had quality daily or weekly irrigation data from which the regression equations were developed; however, the regression models were less reliable than the crop-water-demand models when applied outside the area for which they were developed. In most eastern coastal states that do not have quality irrigation data, the crop-water-demand model can be used more reliably.

The development of predictive models of irrigation water use in this study was hindered by a lack of quality irrigation data. Many mid-Atlantic and New England states do not require irrigation water use to be reported. A survey of irrigation data from 14 eastern coastal states from Maine to Georgia indicated that, with the exception of the data in Georgia, irrigation data in the states that do require reporting commonly did not contain requisite ancillary information such as irrigated area or crop type, lacked precision, or were at an aggregated temporal scale making them unsuitable for use in the development of predictive models. Confidence in the reliability of either modeling method is affected by uncertainty in the reported data from which the models were developed or validated. Only through additional collection of quality data and further study can the accuracy and uncertainty of irrigation water-use estimates be improved in the humid eastern United States.

First posted May 16, 2013

For additional information contact:
Office Chief
U.S. Geological Survey
New England Water Science Center
Massachusetts-Rhode Island Office
10 Bearfoot Road
Northborough, MA 01532
(508) 490-5000

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Suggested citation:

Levin, S.B., and Zarriello, P.J., 2013, Estimating irrigation water use in the humid eastern United States: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5066, 32 p.,




Irrigation Data Compilation

Irrigation Estimation Methods

Model Validation and Comparison

Study Limitations and Areas of Further Study

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

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