Sustainability factors of whether ‘To Irrigate or Not’

June 21, 2023

MSU studies climate and sustainability in the Mississippi River Basin

A Michigan State University research team is working with water managers, farmers and rural communities to address critical food-water issues that could soon impact the U.S. Midwest.

MSU research studies critical food-water issues in the Midwest. Photo: Gulf Restoration Network
Climate change will exacerbate critical food-water issues in the Midwest. Photo: Gulf Restoration Network

Yadu Pokhrel, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is leading a team that includes researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin on a three-year, $800,000 National Science Foundation project funded through the Climate and Sustainability Initiative. The team will work closely with MSU Extension Services and Ruth Kline-Robach from the MSU Department of Community Sustainability, who will serve as an outreach expert.

“Our country’s Midwest, especially the Mississippi River basin (MRB), is a region where we are expecting climate change to exacerbate the complex water, agricultural, and environmental issues that already exist there,” Pokhrel said. “Technology improvements on intensified food production, such as genetic engineering, have enabled better crop yields but have also led to adverse effects on water resources and ecosystems.”

Yadu Pokhrel
Yadu Pokhrel

For example, groundwater in the Ogallala aquifer is currently being over exploited for irrigation, he noted. Additionally, excessive delivery of agricultural nutrients from Mississippi basin farming has created a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“As the adverse impacts on water and ecological systems become more palpable, there is also a growing pressure to produce more food in what will likely be a hotter and drier future,” Pokhrel explained. “We will examine the effectiveness of various agricultural adaptation measures under a range of climate change scenarios.”

Pokhrel said the team’s research assessments will include the need, potential, and feasibility of irrigation expansion in the eastern river basis to sustain food production as compared to water scarcity and challenges to sustain irrigation on the western side of the river basin.

“Our goal is to suggest plausible agricultural adaptation strategies to reduce water stress in the Ogallala aquifer region and better understand the possible changes to water accessibility and quality across the entire region considering various scenarios of climate change and agricultural management.”

The research findings will be disseminated through information platforms that include extension services in Michigan and Illinois. The project will engage K-12 students in outreach activities related to pressing water-food-environmental issues in the U.S., provide computational research opportunities for undergraduate students, and train graduate students at the interface of multiple disciplines.

“We will utilize this opportunity to generate new knowledge on sustainable agricultural intensification across the divergent eastern and western MRB agroecosystems,” he added.