The impacts of climate change on water scarcity are well documented in the western U.S. where chronic droughts have led to historic lows in reservoirs that supply critical drinking water for growing populations and depleted aquifers are forcing farmers to switch crops or invest in deeper wells (Diffenbaugh et al. 2015, Tortajada et al. 2017). In contrast, water scarcity in the predominantly rain-fed Midwest has received less attention. Unlike the western U.S., the upper Corn Belt has little experience in irrigated agriculture. Transitioning the row crop production of the Midwest from rain-fed agriculture to irrigated agriculture would require systemic changes in water budgeting and water use management, as well as massive financial investments in new infrastructure for irrigation. Under scenarios of climate change-induced drought and increasing water consumption from irrigation, groundwater scarcity may threaten not only agricultural water supply, but also access to clean drinking water, surface water aquatic habitats, and other ecosystem services.
Irrigation is a climate change adaptation strategy. The majority of Midwest farmers are concerned about the impacts of climate change, regardless of their stated belief in climate change, and they support actions to protect farmland from increased weather variability, including water scarcity (Arbuckle et al. 2013a, b). Despite farmers’ readiness to address weather variability in the Upper Corn Belt, there is uncertainty around the willingness of farmers to change practices and invest in adaptation behaviors that mitigate against potential impacts of climate change. Farmer perceptions of vulnerability to water scarcity prompt or constrain individual adaptations such as manipulating water use supply, demand, and efficiencies (i.e., water storage, alternative cropping, conservation irrigation) (Wheeler, Zou and Bjornlund 2013). When communities of water users adapt (or maladapt) collectively, “large-scale social restructuring” takes place, further amplifying responses and effects (Ohlsson and Turton 1999).
Our work is motivated by the need to anticipate how climate change may affect irrigation adoption in the Corn Belt and to understand farmers’ beliefs and capacities driving adaptation. Documenting these dynamics in a region that is not yet experiencing severe water scarcity, but where widespread shifts in irrigation behaviors could have significant social, economic, and environmental impacts is valuable. Water supply planning and management must be anticipatory (Quay 2010) and reflect an understanding not only of future climatic forces, but also of the social and psychological dimensions of vulnerability that drive adaptation (Bassett and Fogelman 2013; Wheeler, Zou and Bjornlund 2013).
We focus on farmers and producers in Minnesota where groundwater supplies 75% of the state’s drinking water and 90% of agricultural irrigation demand (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2021). Although the proportion of farmland using irrigation remains low, it is increasing. An estimated 200,000 acres of irrigation, from 4–6% of farmland, have been added in the past two decades (USDA NASS).
We hypothesize that farmers’ perceptions of water scarcity, their farms’ sensitivity to drought impacts, and their capacity to adapt to water scarcity shape their perceived vulnerability to climate change, and ultimately drive their adaptation actions (Fig. 1). This study’s social vulnerability framework (Fig. 1) for investigating perceived vulnerability parallels the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) model of climate change vulnerability: vulnerability is a function of a system’s sensitivity to climate change (i.e., potential for negative consequences), its exposure to climate-related impacts, and its capacity to adapt to those changes. We test the social vulnerability framework through statistical modeling of survey data collected from farmers operating in two state-designated high-risk areas of central Minnesota. Specifically, we asked farmers about their climate change and drought likelihood beliefs, concerns about drought-related impacts to their own farms, and capacities to adapt to water scarcity. We believe these questions are critical to more inclusive, anticipatory, and sustainable narratives of water scarcity, risk, vulnerability, and management in the Upper Corn Belt. Our study findings elucidate the social and psychological dimensions of vulnerability and support anticipatory governance under a changing climate.