Doing More with Less Water

Freshwater is a critical resource that we all depend on, and yet only three percent of the Earth’s water supply is freshwater, found in glaciers, water bodies and groundwater, with only a half a percent of that available for our use. In other words, if the world’s water supply were 26 gallons, our useable supply of freshwater would be half a teaspoon.  

Climate change has severely impacted our water supply. Saltwater intrusion and competition from new water users has further exacerbated conditions. America’s farmers and ranchers are struggling to keep production going and growing to feed an increasing population here in the U.S. and around the world, despite these challenges. Today and in the future, they will be called on to do more with less water.  

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) can help.  NRCS works one-on-one with farmers, ranchers, and foresters to help them implement conservation practices and approaches that conserve water while at the same time improving the health of their lands, helping each drop of water go further. 

Check out these examples: 

Irrigation Pipeline 

Farmers can conserve water by making improvements to their irrigation systems. An irrigation pipeline carries water, either for storage or for applying on the land. Steve Burke in Sheridan, Montana, uses this practice on his cattle, hay, and grain operation. By replacing his old method of flood irrigation with a new irrigation pipeline and gravity sprinkler system, Steve uses half the water he used to, and can water his crops in a fraction of the time.  

See how irrigated pipelines work: 

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Cover Crops 

Cover crops improve the health of soils by keeping the soil covered, cooling the surface, and reducing water lost to evaporation. They increase the organic matter in the soil, which improves soil structure, prevents soil erosion, and ensures water and nutrients stay where they should be, in the soil. Healthy soils help plants better utilize water, meaning less is needed. Farmers plant covers, like grass, small grain, or legumes in the time periods between growing their cash crops. 

See how cover crops work:

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Residue and Tillage Management (No-Till) 

No-till is the practice of creating a narrow furrow just large enough for a seed to be placed, typically using a no-till planter. By not plowing or disking, prior cash and cover crop residues stay on the surface, protecting the soil and keeping it healthier than it would be using conventional tillage. When it breaks down into organic matter it helps improve soil structure. Fields managed using high-residue no-till for multiple years generally have higher levels of organic matter, higher infiltration rates and a higher water holding capacity than conventionally tilled fields. That means water received gets and stays in the field instead of running off the land or moving below plant roots.  

See how no-till works: 

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There are currently more than 160 conservation practices available to help farmers and ranchers with natural resource concerns on their lands, including conserving water. NRCS staff is available at service centers across the country to help answer questions and provide one-on-one advice and assistance. To find a local service center, visit 

To find out more about conservation practices that conserve water, visit  

Erika Cross manages strategic communications at USDA. She can be reached by email at