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What if we could revitalize our agricultural water delivery infrastructure, improve the environment, enhance rural community resilience, and generate clean, renewable hydroelectric energy all in one package? Through irrigation modernization, we can.

Irrigation modernization—and the ongoing evolution of agricultural practices more broadly—is at the nexus of water, energy, food production, environmental stewardship, and rural economic resilience. The modernization of irrigation and water infrastructure presents opportunities for agricultural, environmental, economic, social, and energy benefits that can be achieved through a number of different approaches. For example, the installation of in-conduit hydropower, coupled with pressurized piping can reduce evaporative water loss from open conduits, reduce energy use, and restore environmental habitat.

Irrigation canal in Hood River, Oregon.
Farmers Irrigation District, located in Hood River, Oregon, provides water to more than 5,800 acres of residential and agricultural land.
Jed Jorgensen, Farmers Conservation Alliance

In 2019, the Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO), Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, and project partners Energy Trust of Oregon and Farmers Conservation Alliance investigated whether scalable hydropower technology or optimization solutions could enable more rapid modernization or unlock greater benefits. The study looked at existing irrigation modernization projects through the lens of both renewable energy and water use stakeholders to identify greater economic, energy, and water security potential.

They found that co-development of small-scale hydropower during irrigation modernization projects can be a key element of the business model and provide a predictable revenue stream for irrigation districts to support regular operations and maintenance. With the hydropower locally produced, it also served to increase the resiliency of the local electric grid with clean reliable power. The hydropower development leveraged substantial existing irrigation district infrastructure and provided an incentive for efficient use of water resources that yielded positive outcomes for farmers and the environment. The research team will continue to assess the physical and jurisdictional factors that influence modernization in irrigation districts and develop a visual tool to simulate development scenarios to see how hydropower can unlock the greatest benefits.

With over 13 million acres of land served by off-farm sources of water in the Western United States, irrigation modernization is a promising pathway to update critical rural infrastructure while delivering transformative change in water resilience and distributed hydropower production. Read more about the project here and learn more about the other 2019 WPTO-Funded National Laboratory Projects here.

DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) supports early-stage research and development of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that make energy more affordable and strengthen the reliability, resilience, and security of the U.S. electric grid.