|Researcher Spotlight on Dr. Kent Kovacs
Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness
Kovacs received a base grant from the Arkansas Water Resources Center through the US Geological Survey 104B program to fund a research project titled “Economics of On-Farm Reservoirs Across the Arkansas Delta Region: A Conjunctive Management Approach to Preserving Groundwater and Water Quality.”
The Problem: If you live in Arkansas, the idea of running out of water probably hasn’t crossed your mind. However, in the Arkansas delta region, water availability is always a concern to agricultural crop production. Groundwater aquifers supply the majority of water for irrigation and the rate of withdrawal has long been exceeding the rate of recharge. Water quality is also an important issue, because nutrients from fertilizers applied to farmland can be transported by rainfall and irrigation runoff into agricultural drainage ditches and nearby streams and rivers.
So What?: Agriculture is paramount for Arkansas’s economic well-being, accounting for approximately 17% of the overall economy in 2012. Among all the states, Arkansas is the number 1 producer of rice, number 3 producer of catfish, number 4 producer of cotton, and the number 9 producer of soybeans, all of which depend on groundwater aquifers. Water supply issues can be a huge financial burden for the State and for the farmers whose lives rely on a successful harvest.
The Research Question: Kovacs, in collaboration with Division of Agriculture researchers, wanted to know, what are some of the best irrigation policies for reducing groundwater depletion and protecting water quality that are also most cost-effective for the farmers? They wanted to know how water resource conditions and the crops grown will change over the next 30 years under various water management strategies.
The Methods: Kovacs and a team of cross-disciplinary scientists created a model to assess the effect of on-farm reservoirs on groundwater depletion and sediment and nutrient losses from the agricultural landscape in the delta, with a focus on maximizing farm profitability. They looked at how water use from surface and ground sources, the option to build reservoirs, and the types of crops grown affect the economic and environmental sustainability of the delta landscape.
The Findings: On-farm reservoirs can provide many benefits to farms in Arkansas. Reservoirs were shown to slow groundwater depletion, reduce sediment and nutrient losses, and raise farmer’s net returns in the long run. Even though the construction of these reservoirs decreases the total land area that can be used for farming, profits rose because irrigation water from reservoirs allows farmers to continue growing high return crops like rice for longer before switching to low return crops like non-irrigated soybeans.
The Benefits: The State continues to consider policy for sustainable management of groundwater supplies in the delta, including shifting use to surface water when it’s available. Kovacs’ work can help guide these decisions towards policies that are good for sustainable water use and for the farmers’ bottom line.