Knowledge of baseline water use for irrigated crops in the U.S. Southwest is important for understanding how much water is consumed under normal farm management and to help manage scarce resources. Remote sensing of evapotranspiration (ET) is an effective way to gain that knowledge: multispectral data can provide synoptic and time-repetitive estimates of crop-specific water use, and could be especially useful for this arid region because of dominantly clear skies and minimal precipitation. Although multiple remote sensing ET approaches have been developed and tested, there is not consensus on which of them should be preferred because there are still few intercomparison studies within this environment. To help build the experience needed to gain consensus, a remote sensing study using three ET models was conducted over the Central Arizona Irrigation and Drainage District (CAIDD). Aggregated ET was assessed for 137 wheat plots (winter/spring crop), 183 cotton plots (summer crop), and 225 alfalfa plots (year-round). The employed models were the Satellite-Based Energy Balance for Mapping Evapotranspiration with Internalized Calibration (METRIC), the Two Source Energy Balance (TSEB), and Vegetation Index ET for the US Southwest (VISW). Remote sensing data were principally Landsat 5, supplemented by Landsat 7, MODIS Terra, MODIS Aqua, and ASTER. Using district-wide model averages, seasonal use (excluding surface evaporation) was 742 mm for wheat, 983 mm for cotton, and 1427 mm for alfalfa. All three models produced similar daily ET for wheat, with 6–8 mm/day mid-season. Model estimates diverged for cotton and alfalfa sites. Considering ET over cotton, TSEB estimates were 9.5 mm/day, METRIC 6 mm/day, and VISW 8 mm/day. For alfalfa, the ET values from TSEB were 8.0 mm/day, METRIC 5 mm/day, and VISW 6 mm/day. Lack of local validation information unfortunately made it impossible to rank model performance. However, by averaging results from all of them, ET model outliers could be identified. They ranged from −10% to +18%, values that represent expected ET modeling discrepancies. Relative to the model average, standardized ET-estimators—potential ET (ET
), FAO-56 ET, and USDA-SW gravimetric-ET— showed still greater deviations, up to 35% of annual crop water use for summer and year-round crops, suggesting that remote sensing of actual ET could lead to significantly improved estimates of crop water use. Results from this study highlight the need for conducting multi-model experiments during summer-months over sites with independent ground validation.
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