Determinants of agricultural water conservation, incentives, and the rebound effect

This discussion concerns the measures that field vegetable growers in Florida and the Netherlands can take to increase their water use efficiency, the effects of these measures on total consumptive water use, and the incentives that can be used to stimulate their implementation. This is the topic of my MSc thesis, which I will combine with an internship at the Agricultural Economics Institute (LEI) in the Netherlands.



Due to a growing world population and increasing incomes the demand for the world’s available freshwater resources is on the rise. This is especially true in coastal zones, which are popular places to live, work and recreate. They also often represent fertile areas for agriculture, and facilitate unique nature areas that are crucial for the survival of rare plant and animal species.

Florida and the Netherlands are two examples of regions containing such coastal zones. The Netherlands has one of the highest population densities in the world, and Florida is expected soon to surpass New York as the third most populous state in the United States. This puts increasing pressure on the water supply. 


Despite access to coastal, river and lake water, both areas regularly experience periods of water shortage. Since 1900 Florida has experienced at least one severe and widespread drought every decade, and records indicate that 2006 and 2007 were the driest years Florida has experienced since 1932 (FDEP, 2013). The Netherlands also experiences precipitation deficits, such as in the summers of 2003 and 2006, causing substantial losses in the agricultural sector. Additionally, the Netherlands constantly has to deal with the challenge of controlling the water level: draining to ensure the land is dry enough, and re-wetting to prevent desiccation and soil subsidence. Pollution and saltwater intrusion increase the pressure on the water supply, as do the actions of upstream states or countries. With the predicted impacts of population growth, as well as the risk of climate change, the already-strained water supply is likely to encounter difficulties in sustaining current water needs (Pimentel et al ., 2004 and Rijsberman, 2006 in Bouman, 2007).

Agriculture thus faces the challenge of producing valuable food for a growing world population under increasing scarcity of water resources. Irrigated agriculture is of high importance in both Florida and the Netherlands, bringing their economies income and jobs. Florida is the second leading state in area and dollar value of vegetable crop cultivation with 181,000 acres planted in 2006 and a crop value greater than $1.2 billion (USDA, 2008). In the Netherlands field vegetable production is also a very important sector, with a value of €422 million, or $497 million in 2012 (Product Board for Horticulture, 2013). Water shortages can greatly impact irrigated agriculture. It is therefore important to look for ways to ensure sufficient water for irrigated agriculture. 


Practically all horticultural production in Florida is irrigated because of the economic value of the crops and relatively low water-holding capacity of the sandy soils. In the Netherlands irrigated agriculture is not among the biggest water users, but the sector is very sensitive to water shortages since it has the lowest priority when there is water shortage (as specified in the “verdringingsreeks”, a list that prioritizes water distribution in a water consumption hierarchy).


Therefore, there are two water challenges facing irrigated horticulture in Florida and the Netherlands: to ensure there is enough water to produce food for a growing world population, and to use water in an efficient way. 


Under the European Water Framework Directive, farmers are encouraged to participate in finding a solution to these challenges. The agri- and horticulture organization in the Netherlands (LTO) is working on an agricultural water management plan (DAW), and is investigating how farmers can use water more efficiently and deal with water shortages in the face of more weather extremes (and thus more future droughts). 

Florida has several years of experience in dealing with agricultural water use and water shortage, for example through use of agricultural Water Conservation Measures (WCMs). Since WCMs are often costly, and can be technically difficult, there are support programs at the federal, state and Water Management District (WMD) level.  The conservation practices are assumed to be economically benign, therefore the adoption of WCMs by farmers is expected to be commonplace. For example, Florida has a large number of water-related Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) contracts which provide financial and technical assistance for implementation of Best Management Practices (BMPs) including WCMs. However, adoption levels of WCMs vary among Florida’s six WMDs. It is also important to look at the effect of WCMs on total water use, as some studies have indicated WCMs can inadvertently increase consumptive water use (mainly after shifting to drip irrigation). This is important for cost-benefit analysis of public incentives for stimulating adoption of WCMs. The resources expended for support programs ask for more research to inform policymakers about the factors that influence adoption behaviour, and the effect of the WCMs on total consumptive water use. 

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic, and look forward to learning more about the interests and know-how of other group members!