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Making History: Bridget Scanlon

History Makers

When Bridget Scanlon thinks of water, she thinks of food — and how vital water is to agricultural production. A senior research scientist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology, she initially became interested in water because of her interest in helping to feed the poor of Africa.

Portrait of Bridget Scanlon

Bridget Scanlon is revolutionizing our understanding of water resources used for irrigation and food production.

Scanlon eventually was able to visit the world’s second-largest continent, and the trip strengthened her resolve to make a difference. Now, searching for new, more-sustainable ways to mitigate the impacts of droughts, she is making great strides in understanding the processes at work in Africa — and throughout the world — through her research in North America.

With support from donor-funded endowments and other gifts to the Jackson School of Geosciences, Scanlon and her colleagues are revolutionizing our understanding of water resources used for irrigation and food production.

For Scanlon, agriculture is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussions of water demand. Globally, it consumes 90 percent of freshwater resources. “We need to get a handle on the water used in food production in order to manage water resources effectively,” she says.

Her work aims to do just that. She and her colleagues study land use and aquifer patterns in California’s Central Valley and the High Plains of the central U.S., including Texas. Combined, these regions produce much of the nation’s food. They also account for half of all groundwater depletion in the U.S., mainly as a result of irrigating crops.

Stretching scarce water resources

Scanlon and her colleagues have suggested ways to make irrigated agriculture in the Central Valley more sustainable. Replacing flood irrigation systems (used on about half of crops) with more-efficient sprinkle and drip systems would help, as would expanding groundwater banking, which stores excess surface water in the same natural aquifers that supply groundwater for irrigation.

When groundwater levels drop too low to support irrigated farming in some areas of the High Plains, farmers there will need to switch from irrigated crops such as corn to non-irrigated crops like sorghum, or to rangeland. “Basically, irrigated agriculture in much of the southern High Plains is unsustainable,” Scanlon says.

The transition could be economically challenging because non-irrigated crops generate about half the yield of irrigated crops and are far more vulnerable to droughts. But Scanlon is optimistic. “For agricultural water management, there’s a lot we can do,” she says. She continues to work toward understanding the various impacts people can have on the use of agricultural water and hopes to eventually transfer what she has learned in Texas all the way to Africa.

Adapted from previously published articles by Lisa M. Pinsker and Marc Airhart — see links below.

How you can help UT develop better ways to manage water resources

Bridget Scanlon and her colleagues are revolutionizing our understanding of water resources used for irrigation and food production. With your support, they can find new, more sustainable ways to mitigate the impacts of droughts and feed the nation.

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Related links:

Groundwater Depletion in Semiarid Regions of Texas and California Threatens U.S. Food Security

Edge of the Desert: Water Research Aims for Global Sustainability

UT Center for Sustainable Water Resources

Bridget Scanlon’s website