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Using remote sensing to characterize and compare evapotranspiration from different irrigation regimes in the Smith River Watershed of central Montana

September 1, 2017

According to the 2005 U.S. Geological Survey national water use compilation, irrigation is the second largest use of fresh water in the United States, accounting for 37%, or 484.48 million cubic meters per day, of total freshwater withdrawal. Accurately estimating the amount of water withdrawals and actual consumptive water use (the difference between water withdrawals and return flow) for irrigation at a regional scale is difficult. Remote sensing methods make it possible to compare actual ET (ETa) rates which can serve as a proxy for consumptive water use from different irrigation regimes at a regional scale in a systematic manner. This study investigates crucial components of water use from irrigation such as the difference of ETa rates from flood- and sprinkler-irrigated fields, spatial variability of ETa within a watershed, and the effect of sprinkler irrigation on the water budget of the study area. The mean accumulated ETa depth for the 1,051 square kilometer study area within the upper Smith River watershed was about 467 mm 30-meter per pixel for the 2007 growing season (April through mid-October). The total accumulated volume of ETa for the study area was about 474.705 million cubic meters. The mean accumulated ETa depth from sprinkler-irrigated land was about 687 mm and from flood-irrigated land was about 621 mm from flood-irrigated land. On average, the ETa rate from sprinkler-irrigated fields was 0.25 mm per day higher than flood-irrigated fields over the growing season. Spatial analysis showed that ETa rates within individual fields of a single crop type that are irrigated with a single method (sprinkler or flood) can vary up to about 8 mm per day. It was estimated that the amount of sprinkler irrigation in 2007 accounted for approximately 3% of the total volume of ETa in the study area. When compared to non-irrigated dryland, sprinkler irrigation increases ETa by about 59 to 82% per unit area.