Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

Alleviating water scarcity by optimizing crop mixes

An Author Correction to this article was published on 07 May 2024

This article has been updated


Irrigated agriculture dominates freshwater consumption globally, but crop production and farm revenues suffer when water supplies are insufficient to meet irrigation needs. In the United States, the mismatch between irrigation demand and freshwater availability has been exacerbated in recent decades due to recurrent droughts, climate change and overextraction that dries rivers and depletes aquifers. Yet, there has been no spatially detailed assessment of the potential for shifting to new crop mixes to reduce crop water demands and alleviate water shortage risks. In this study, we combined modelled crop water requirements and detailed agricultural statistics within a national hydrological model to quantify sub-basin-level river depletion, finding high-to-severe levels of irrigation scarcity in 30% of sub-basins in the western United States, with cattle-feed crops—alfalfa and other hay—being the largest water consumers in 57% of the region’s sub-basins. We also assessed recent trends in irrigation water consumption, crop production and revenue generation in six high-profile farming areas and found that in recent decades, water consumption has decreased in four of our study areas—a result of a reduction in the irrigated area and shifts in the production of the most water-consumptive crops—even while farm revenues increased. To examine the opportunities for crop shifting and fallowing to realize further reductions in water consumption, we performed optimizations on realistic scenarios for modifying crop mixes while sustaining or improving net farm profits, finding that additional water savings of 28–57% are possible across our study areas. These findings demonstrate strong opportunities for economic, food security and environmental co-benefits in irrigated agriculture and provide both hope and direction to regions struggling with water scarcity around the world.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Summer river depletion across the United States.
Fig. 2: Water demands for irrigation during the period 1981–2019.
Fig. 3: Exposure of individual crops to water scarcity risk in the western United States.
Fig. 4: Historical shifts in irrigation consumption and gross revenue.
Fig. 5: Historical shifts in crop-specific water consumption.
Fig. 6: Water savings from optimized cropping mixes.
Fig. 7: Optimized cropping mixes when fallowing of 30% is allowed.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

All data assembled or analysed in this study are available from the corresponding author.

Change history


  1. Müller Schmied, H. et al. The global water resources and use model WaterGAP v2.2d: model description and evaluation. Geosci. Model Dev. 14, 1037–1079 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Wada, Y., van Beek, L. P. H. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: a global assessment. Water Resour. Res. 48, e12 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Richter, B. D. et al. Water scarcity and fish imperilment driven by beef production. Nat. Sustain. 3, 319–328 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Jägermeyr, J. Agriculture’s historic twin-challenge toward sustainable water use and food supply for all. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 4, 35 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Hardin, G. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Richter, B. Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability (Island Press, 2014).

  7. 2017 Census of Agriculture (USDA and National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2019);

  8. Medellín-Azuara, J. et al. Economic Impacts of the 2020–2022 Drought on California Agriculture (California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2022);

  9. Davis, T. “We’re sounding the alarm” on waterflow, Elephant Butte managers say. Albuquerque Journal (19 June 2021).

  10. Elephant Butte Irrigation District. Crop and Allotment Data 1998–2021 (data for 2021).

  11. Schmidt, J. C., Yackulic, C. B. & Kuhn, E. The Colorado River water crisis: its origin and the future. WIREs Water (2023).

  12. US Bureau of Reclamation. Water Operations: Historic Data (data for 2022);

  13. Davis, T. Uncertainty grips Arizona over Colorado River supplies. Tucson Daily Star (12 September 2022).

  14. Kinzelbach, W., Wang, H., Li, Y., Wang, L. & Li, N. Groundwater Overexploitation in the North China Plain: A Path to Sustainability (Springer Nature, 2022);

  15. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. Blue water footprint linked to national consumption and international trade is unsustainable. Nat. Food 1, 792–800 (2020).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Bass, B., Goldenson, N., Rahimi, S. & Hall, A. Aridification of Colorado River Basin’s snowpack regions has driven water losses despite ameliorating effects of vegetation. Water Resour. Res. 59, e2022WR033454 (2023).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Lehner, F., Wahl, E. R., Wood, A. W., Blatchford, D. B. & Llewellyn, D. Assessing recent declines in Upper Rio Grande runoff efficiency from a paleoclimate perspective. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 4124–4133 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Dettinger, M., Udall, B. & Georgkakos, G. Western water and climate change. Ecol. Appl. 25, 2069–2093 (2015).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. Martin, J. T. et al. Increased drought severity tracks warming in the United States’ largest river basin. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 11328–11336 (2020).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  20. Williams, A. P., Cook, A. I. & Smerdon, J. E. Rapid intensification of the emerging southwestern North American megadrought in 2020–2021. Nat. Clim. Change 12, 232–234 (2022).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Marston, L. T. et al. The importance of fit in groundwater self-governance. Environ. Res. Lett. 17, 111001 (2022).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Cody, K. C., Smith, S. M., Cox, M. & Andersson, K. Emergence of collective action in a groundwater commons: irrigators in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Soc. Nat. Resourc. 28, 405–422 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Garner, E., McGlothlin, R., Szeptycki, L., Babbitt, C. & Kincaid, V. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the common law of groundwater rights—finding a consistent path forward for groundwater allocation. UCLA J. Environ. Law Policy 38, 163–216 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Escriva-Bou, A., Hanak, E., Cole, S. & Medellin-Azuara, J. The Future of Agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley (Public Policy Institute of California, 2023).

  25. Water Sustainability Act (SBC 2014) Ch. 15 (CanLII, 2014);

  26. Kallis, G. & Butler, D. The EU water framework directive: measures and implications. Water Policy 3, 125–142 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Ross, A. Speeding the transition towards integrated groundwater and surface water management in Australia. J. Hydrol. 567, e1–e10 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Graham, N. T. et al. Agricultural impacts of sustainable water use in the United States. Sci. Rep. 11, 17917 (2021).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  29. Deines, J. M., Kendall, A. D., Butler, J. J. & Hyndman, D. W. Quantifying irrigation adaptation strategies in response to stakeholder-driven groundwater management in the US High Plains Aquifer. Environ. Res. Lett. 14, 044014 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Bryant, B. P. et al. Shaping land use change and ecosystem restoration in a water-stressed agricultural landscape to achieve multiple benefits. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 4, 138 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Sun, G. et al. Upscaling key ecosystem functions across the conterminous United States by a water-centric ecosystem model. J. Geophys. Res. 116, G00J05 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Caldwell, P. V., Sun, G., McNulty, S. G., Cohen, E. C. & Moore Myers, J. A. Impacts of impervious cover, water withdrawals, and climate change on river flows in the conterminous US. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 16, 2839–2857 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Seaber, P. R., Kapinos, F. P. & Knapp, G. L. Hydrologic Unit Maps Water-Supply Paper 2294 (US Geological Survey, 1987).

  34. de Graaf, I. E. M., Gleeson, T., van Beek, L. P. H., Sutanudjaja, E. H. & Bierkens, M. F. P. Environmental flow limits to global groundwater pumping. Nature 574, 90–108 (2019).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  35. Richter, B. D. & Ho, M. D. Sustainable Groundwater Management for Agriculture (World Wildlife Fund, 2022);

  36. Jasechko, S. et al. Widespread potential loss of streamflow into underlying aquifers across the USA. Nature 591, 391–395 (2021).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  37. Kumar, S., Lawrence, D. M., Dirmeyer, P. A. & Sheffield, J. Less reliable water availability in the 21st century climate projections. Earths Future 2, 152–160 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. Cho, S. & McCarl, B. Climate change influences on crop mix shifts in the United States. Sci. Rep. 7, 40845 (2017).

    Article  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  39. Attavanich, W., McCarl, B. A., Ahmedov, Z., Fuller, S. W. & Vedenov, D. V. Effects of climate change on US grain transport. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 638–643 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Reilly, J. et al. US agriculture and climate change: new results. Clim. Change 57, 43–67 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Richter, B. D. et al. Opportunities for saving and reallocating agricultural water to alleviate scarcity. Water Policy 19, 886–907 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Producer price index by commodity: farm products (data from 2000 and 2019);

  43. McLaughlin, D. & Kinzelbach, W. Food security and sustainable resource management. Water Resour. Res. 51, 4966–4985 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Njuki, E. US Dairy Productivity Increased Faster in Large Farms and Across Southwestern States (US Economic Research Service, US Department of Agriculture, 2022);

  45. Cultivating change. Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy

  46. Advancing Strategic Land Repurposing and Groundwater Sustainability in California: A Guide for Developing Regional Strategies to Create Multiple Benefits (Environmental Defense Fund.);

  47. US Department of Agriculture. Conservation Reserve Program (2023);

  48. Ayres, A. et al. Solar Energy and Groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley: How Policy Alignment Can Support the Regional Economy (Public Policy Institute of California, 2022);

  49. Wei, D., Gephart, J. A., Iizumi, T., Ramankutty, N. & Davis, K. F. Key role of planted and harvested area fluctuations in US crop production shocks. Nat. Sustain. 6, 1177–1185 (2023).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Jaworski, A. Encouraging climate adaptation through reform of federal crop insurance subsidies. N. Y. Univ. Law Rev. 91, 1684–1718 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  51. Adler, R. W. Balancing compassion and risk in climate adaptation: US water, drought, and agricultural law. Fla Law Rev. 64, 201–267 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  52. King, S. L., Laubhan, M. K., Tashjian, P., Vradenburg, J. & Fredrickson, L. Wetland conservation: challenges related to water law and farm policy. Wetlands 41, 54 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Environmental Working Group. EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database (2023);

  54. Taylor, R. G. et al. Groundwater and climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 322–329 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Famiglietti, J. et al. Satellites measure recent rates of groundwater depletion in California’s Central Valley. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L03403 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Richter, B. & Ho, M. Sustainable Groundwater Management for Agriculture (World Wildlife Fund, 2022).

  57. Marston L. T. et al. Reducing water scarcity by improving water productivity in the United States. Environ. Res. Lett. (2020).

  58. Prism Climate Data (PRISM Climate Group, accessed 22 July 2021);

  59. Homer, C. G., Fry, J. A. & Barnes, C. A. National Land Cover Database (US Geological Survey, 2012).

  60. National Land Cover Database (MRLC, accessed 22 July 2021);

  61. Foster, T. et al. AquaCrop-OS: an open source version of FAO’s crop water productivity model. Agric. Water Manag. 181, 18–22 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Steduto, P., Hsiao, T. C., Fereres, E. & Raes, D. Crop Yield Response to Water (FAO, 2012).

  63. National Agricultural Statistics Service. Quick Stats (USDA, 2023);

  64. Allen, R. G., Pereira, L. S., Raes, D. & Smith, M. Crop Evapotranspiration. FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper No. 56; e156 (FAO, 1998).

  65. Orange, M. N., Matyac, J. S. & Snyder, R. L. Consumptive use program (CUP) model. Acta Hortic. 664, 461–468 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Abatzoglou, J. T. Development of gridded surface meteorological data for ecological applications and modelling. Int. J. Climatol. 33, 121–131 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Hengl, T. et al. SoilGrids250m: global gridded soil information based on machine learning. PLoS ONE 12, e0169748 (2017).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  68. Hoekstra, A. Y. Green–blue water accounting in a soil water balance. Adv. Water Res. 129, 112–117 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. A Method for Estimating Volume and Rate of Runoff in Small Watersheds (Soil Conservation Service, USDA, 1968).

  70. Johnson, D. M. & Mueller, R. Cropland Data Layer (USDA, 2010);

  71. Xie, Y., Gibbs, H. K. & Lark, T. J. Landsat-based Irrigation Dataset (LANID): 30 m resolution maps of irrigation distribution, frequency, and change for the US, 1997–2017. Earth Sys. Sci. Data 13, 5689–5710 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Sohl, T. et al. Modeled historical land use and land cover for the conterminous United States. J. Land Use Sci. 11, 476–499 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. FAOSTAT (FAO, 2023);

  74. Historic Crop and Livestock Budgets (Agricultural and Resource Economics, Univ. of Arizona, 2001);

  75. Evancho, B., Ollerton, P., Teegerstrom, T. & Seavert, C. Enterprise Budgets: Alfalfa Hay Production, Flood Irrigated, Southern Arizona (Univ. of Arizona Cooperative Extension, 2023).

  76. Evancho, B., Ollerton, P., Teegerstrom, T. & Seavert, C. Enterprise Budgets: Durum Wheat, Following Cotton, Flood Irrigated, Southern Arizona (Univ. of Arizona Cooperative Extension, 2023).

  77. Evancho, B., Ollerton, P., Teegerstrom, T. & Seavert, C. Enterprise Budgets: Silage Corn, Flood Irrigated, Southern Arizona (Univ. of Arizona Cooperative Extension, 2023).

  78. Steward, D., Murdock, J., Eversole, M. & Goodrich, B. Current Cost and Return Studies (Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC Davis, 2020);

  79. Enterprise Budgets—Fruit + Vegetable (Agriculture and Business Management, Colorado State Univ., 2023);

  80. Enterprise Budgets—Crop (Agriculture and Business Management, Colorado State Univ., 2023);

  81. Crop Budgets (Idaho AgBiz, 2023);

  82. Klein, R. & McClure, G. Nebraska Crop Budgets (Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2023);

  83. Regmi, M., Lillywhite, J. & Boufous, S. Cost and Return Estimates (CARE) for Farms and Ranches 2013–2022 (New Mexico State Univ., 2023);

  84. Crop Budgets (Extension Applied Economics, Utah State Univ., 2006);

  85. Asay, J., Lee, B. & Ritten, J. Irrigated Alfalfa, Barley, Corn, and Sugar Beet Budgets for the Big Horn Basin, Wyoming (Univ. of Wyoming Extension, 2020);

  86. Commodity Costs and Returns (Economic Research Service, USDA, 2023);

  87. Deliberto, M. & Hilbun, B. M. Projected Cost and Returns: Crop Enterprise Budgets for Sugarcane Production in Louisiana, 2021 (Louisiana State Univ. AgCenter, 2021);

  88. Fonsah, E. G., Wells, L., Hudson, W. & Collins, D. Pecan Budget (Univ. of Georgia, 2022);

  89. Duda, J. Gila River Indian Community, feds announce water conservation deal. Axios Phoenix (6 April 2023);

  90. Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, Environmental water leasing program (2023);

  91. Vad, J. State will pay some valley farmers to fallow in attempt to save groundwater. Fresnoland (2 March 2023);

  92. Patakamuri, S.K. & O’Brien, N. modifiedmk: Modified Versions of Mann Kendall and Spearman’s Rho Trend Tests. R package version 1.6 (2021).

  93. Berkelaar, M., Eikland, K. & Notebaert, P. lpSolve: Interface to ‘Lp_solve’ v. 5.5 to solve linear/integer programs. R package version 5.6.15 (2015).

Download references


P. Caldwell of the US Forest Service’s Southern Research Station in North Carolina performed all hydrological modelling for this study. K. Jin of the World Wildlife Fund contributed graphical illustrations. We are most grateful for their important contributions. L.M. acknowledges the support of the National Science Foundation (grant nos. CBET-2144169 and RISE- 2108196) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (grant no. FF-NIA19-0000000084). K.F.D. and L.M. acknowledge support by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (grant no. 2022-67019-37180). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) alone.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



B.D.R. designed the study and served as lead author of the paper. Y.A., G.L., D.W. and M.A. performed data gathering and data analysis and edited the paper. L.M. and K.F.D. helped to design the study, supervised the data analysis and edited the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brian D. Richter.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Water thanks David Abler, Caitlin Peterson, James Rising and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–11 and Figs. 1–15.

Rights and permissions

Springer Nature or its licensor (e.g. a society or other partner) holds exclusive rights to this article under a publishing agreement with the author(s) or other rightsholder(s); author self-archiving of the accepted manuscript version of this article is solely governed by the terms of such publishing agreement and applicable law.

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Richter, B.D., Ao, Y., Lamsal, G. et al. Alleviating water scarcity by optimizing crop mixes. Nat Water 1, 1035–1047 (2023).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing