Newsbrief Archive

Water Currents News - October 2015

Agriculture: New Research & Technologies Help Conservation

Agriculture accounts for 80-90 percent of the nation’s consumptive water use, according to the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). That means it draws hundreds of billions of gallons of water per day. Yet, despite significant water shortages in many areas of the country, much of this water is not used efficiently.

Exact figures on the amount of wasted water are difficult to determine but the World Wildlife Fund estimates that, globally, 60 percent the water used for agriculture is squandered through “leaky irrigation systems, wasteful field application methods and cultivation of crops not suited to the environment.”

Improved technology and new research has provided a wealth of options for increased water efficiency on US farms, but the take-up has been slow. A USDA study notes that “at least half of US irrigated cropland acreage is still irrigated with less efficient, traditional irrigation application systems.”

And although farmers continue to make significant investments in their irrigation systems, “less than 10 percent of irrigated farms use advanced on-farm water management decision tools,” according to a 2012 USDA report.

Most experts agree that irrigation scheduling and monitoring are the most cost-effective ways that farmers can save water. Here are some others:

Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation systems transport water directly to the plant’s roots, reducing water loss due to evaporation. In addition, these systems can be hooked up to timers that schedule watering when temperatures are lower, further decreasing evaporation.

A good system can reduce water usage by 80 percent but drip irrigation is expensive, energy intensive, and requires clean water to prevent clogging of the delivery tubes.

Indigenous Crops

Native plants tend to be more drought resistant, increasing land productivity. Vegetables, in particular, generally have shorter growth cycles and require less water.

Reduced Tillage

Although tilling can have significant short-term benefits, it adversely affects soil quality and its ability to retain water. Planting seeds in holes and narrow ditches helps to maintain the natural soil structure, providing better productivity over the long haul.

Capturing and Storing Water

Some farmers are able to build their own ponds to capture rainwater and use for irrigation. This not only reduces water bills but also helps to minimize the farm’s impact on local water supplies.

Rotational Grazing

This process involves moving livestock between fields, enabling pastures to replenish the vegetation naturally. Effective grazing management increases the water-absorbing capabilities of the fields and decreases runoff.

Compost and Mulch

Compost improves soil structure, enabling it to retain water more effectively and mulch, spread in top of soil, also conserves moisture.

Organic Crops

A study by Rodale Institute, an independent agricultural research organization in Pennsylvania, determined that organic corn produced yields 30 percent greater than conventional fields during times of drought. The study concluded that, in addition to keeping toxic pesticides out of waterways, organic methods help retain soil moisture.

Agriculture is a constantly evolving industry and, as technology matures and the need for water conservation becomes increasingly evident, more farms will take advantage of water-saving options.

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