CALS student looks for answers to irrigation issue
The management and use of water in agriculture has always been of interest to Madison Moore. Growing up on a dryland wheat farm in the Horse Heaven Hills near Prosser, Washington, she has seen first-hand how important access to water is for agricultural production. So, it’s no surprise that water became the focus of Moore’s master’s degree in applied economics from the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
A diverse region
The average annual rainfall for Prosser is just nine inches per year, compared to an average of 38 inches for the entire state. Prosser is located in Benton County, which contributes over $900 million to Washington State’s $9 billion agriculture sales each year, according to Washington State University Extension, making it a vital region for Washington State’s agriculture economy.
“My dad claims it’s the driest place in the world to grow wheat,” Moore said. “I grew up in an area that is really diverse. There is tree fruit and row crops and dryland and it’s in close proximity so you can see the spread of difference between crops and how it really depends on water.”
Logic and theory
Moore earned a bachelor’s in agricultural economics from WSU in 2016. At first, she didn’t have any plans to pursue a graduate degree in economics but a research project her junior year changed that.
“When I stared doing research and the econometrics and statistics, it really clicked for me,” Moore said. “I like the logic behind it and the theory — that’s what I’m good at.”
Moore began looking into graduate programs and received offers from U of I, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. The research opportunities available at U of I convinced her to become a Vandal.
“Ultimately, when it came down to it, U of I has a really good program in terms of research at the graduate level,” Moore said. “Programs that have Ph.D.’s don’t offer research for master’s, and if they do you go straight into it and do what they want, research-wise. Here it was a lot more freedom, and I could kind of choose what I wanted to do.
“The skills I’ve learned in the program I can really apply in the industry.”
Irrigation and water values
Moore’s graduate work has been focused on irrigated water and water values, in particular as those issues relate to the Columbia Basin.
The Columbia Basin Project in Central Washington is the largest water reclamation project in the United States, supplying irrigation water to over 670,000 acres of the 1,100,000-acre project area. Water pumped from the Columbia River is carried over 331 miles of main canals, stored in reservoirs, then fed into 1,339 miles of lateral irrigation canals and out into 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways.
The project was never completed to all 1,100,000 acres, resulting in a substantial depletion of the Odessa aquifer. Acres outside the developed portion have been using groundwater pumped from the aquifer to irrigate crops.
“There are really bad quality issues and it’s bad for the municipalities in the region,” Moore said. “There is a big federal project going on and it costs a lot of money and there is a lot of conflict. The permits they say they are going to give out to farmers to get surface water are going to cost too much.”
Moore’s idea is to adjust the way the federal government is doing the project so it will cost less based on location, resulting in farmers replacing their ground water usage with surface water. She is doing a hedonic regression analysis, a method of estimating demand or value, using the price of land collected from assessor data to determine the drivers of land value in the Columbia Basin.
“My theory is that, based on costs, the closer you are to already developed infrastructure, the less it costs to get surface water to you as a farmer,” Moore said. “Right now, people that are current dry-landers, they can’t get new water rights. But I hypothesis that if you give them water rights and you gave the people that were close to infrastructure water rights, they can share in the cost of building the new infrastructure to spread out the cost and it will be cheaper for permits for the people that actually need the water.
“Because you can’t just stop letting them have water. You need to replace it somehow.”
Moore sees irrigation as the largest influence on land value and what separates high valued production from lesser valued dryland production. Efficient allocation of natural resources, particularly water, in the Columbia Basin is what Moore feels will enable the region to maintain its status as an agricultural powerhouse while also providing for rural residents.
This type of analysis has never been done on the region, Moore said. There are many sides to the issue making it a contentious topic to explore.
“My purpose as an economist is not to have an opinion, but to show the facts,” Moore said. “I want to purely show the facts and show my theory. It’s very controversial, but if there are good results then I might try to publish it.”
A positive impact
Moore will present her finding and her thesis in December, and will graduate at the December ceremony. She is looking for career opportunities in her field where she can help the agriculture industry.
“Ultimately, I want to make a positive impact on the agricultural industry,” Moore said. “That’s what I’ve always driven toward. That’s why I went to get a master’s. I’m not sure what path it will put me on yet, but I think that every job I get I’ll always be building toward that.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences