As water scarcity worsens globally, there is growing interest in finding ways to reduce water consumption, and for reallocating water savings to other uses including environmental restoration. Because irrigated agriculture is responsible for more than 90% of all consumptive water use in water-scarce regions, much attention is being focused on opportunities to save water on irrigated farms. At the same time, many recent journal articles have expressed concern that claims of water-saving potential in irrigation systems lack technical credibility, or are at least exaggerated, due to failures to properly account for key elements of water budgets such as return flows. Critics have also asserted that opportunities for reallocating irrigation savings to other uses are limited because any freed-up water is taken up by other farmers. A comprehensive literature and internet survey was undertaken to identify well-documented studies of water-saving strategies in irrigated agriculture, as well as a review of case studies in which water savings have been successfully transferred to other uses. Our findings suggest that there is in fact considerable potential to reduce consumptive water use in irrigation systems when proper consideration is given to water budget accounting, and those savings can be beneficially reallocated to other purposes.

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