Food and the Future Environment

Irrigation Efficiency

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The amount of water used for irrigation varies depending on the climate and on the crop being grown, and it also depends on the irrigation technique used. Just like in your garden or home landscaping there are more or less efficient sprinklers. In many parts of the world flood or surface, irrigation is still used where water flows across a field and soaks into the soil.

Surface or flood irrigation is the least efficient manner of irrigation. When a field is flooded, more water than is needed by the plant is applied to the field and water evaporates, seeps into the ground and percolates down to the groundwater, where it can be out of reach of the plant's roots. Another problem with flood irrigation is that the water is not always applied evenly to all plants. Some plants might get too much water, and others get too little. On the other hand, flood irrigation tends to use the least energy of any irrigation system.

Furrow irrigation (Figure 4.1.8) is another type of surface irrigation in which water is directed through gated pipe or siphon tubes into furrows between rows of plants. When using furrow irrigation, water is lost to surface runoff, groundwater, and evaporation, and it can be challenging to get water evenly to an entire field.

furrow irrigation systemFurrow irrigation of an onion field in the Uncompahgre Valley, CO.
Figure 4.1.8. Furrow irrigation of an onion field in the Uncompahgre Valley, CO.
Credits: Perry Cabot

More efficient methods of irrigation include drip irrigation (Figure 4.1.9) sprinklers (such as center pivots, Figure 4.1.10), and micro-spray (Figure 4.1.11) irrigation. All of these methods, while more efficient, also require significant investments in equipment, pipes, infrastructure (e.g., pumps Figure 4.1.9) and energy. In addition to the high cost, some soil types, irrigation networks, field sizes, and crops pose greater challenges to the implementation of more efficient methods of irrigation. For example, in the Grand Valley of western Colorado, the irrigation network is entirely gravity-fed, meaning that farmers can easily flood and furrow irrigate without the use of pumps. In addition, the fields are small and the soils are very clayey, all of which make using center pivots for row crops particularly challenging and expensive. But, in the same valley, the peach orchards have successfully used micro-spray and drip systems. A major advantage of more efficient irrigation in addition to reduced water consumption is that crop yields are often higher because the water can be applied more directly to the plant when water is needed.

drip irrigation system
Figure 4.1.9. Filtration and pumps for a drip irrigation system for onion and bean crops in the Uncompahgre Valley, CO.
Credit: Gigi Richard
Center pivot sprinkler irrigation on an alfalfa crop in the San Luis Valley, COa hay crop for cattle feed in the Uncompahgre Valley, CO
Figure 4.1.10. a) Center pivot sprinkler irrigation on an alfalfa crop in the San Luis Valley, CO and b) a hay crop for cattle feed in the Uncompahgre Valley, CO.
Credit: Gigi Richard
Micro-spray irrigation at a peach orchard in the Grand Valley, CO.
Figure 4.1.11. Micro-spray irrigation at a peach orchard in the Grand Valley, CO.
Credit: Gigi Richard

Activate Your Learning

Table 4.1.1 presents data on the top 15 irrigated states in the United States. You can see how many acres of land are irrigated in each state, and how much water is used for irrigation of both surface water and groundwater. Consider the relationship between the amount of irrigated land in a state, the type of irrigation used and the amount of water used.

An acre-foot is a unit of measure for large volumes of water and is the volume of water required to cover one acre of land to a depth of one foot (325,851 gallons). Imagine a football field, including the end zones, one foot deep in water.

Table 4.1.1. Top 15 Irrigated States, 2010
Data from U.S. Geological Survey, 2014, Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2010, Circular 1405, Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Interior
State Irrigated Land (in thousand acres)
by type of irrigation
Surface Water Withdrawals Groundwater Withdrawals Total Irrigation Withdrawals
- Sprinkler Micro-irrigation Surface Total Thousand acre-feet per year % of irrigation water from surface water Thousand acre-feet per year % of irrigation water from groundwater Thousand acre-feet per year Percent of total water withdrawals
used for irrigation
California 1790 2890 5670 10400 16100 62% 9740 38% 25840 61%
Idaho 2420 4.57 1180 3600 11500 73% 4280 27% 15780 82%
Colorado 1410 0.2 1930 3340 9440 87% 1450 13% 10890 88%
Arkansas 518 0 4150 4670 1500 15% 8270 85% 9770 77%
Montana 753 0.64 886 1640 7880 98% 142 2% 8022 94%
Texas 3770 244 1910 5920 1940 25% 5710 75% 7650 27%
Nebraska 6370 0.57 2360 8730 1520 24% 4820 76% 6340 70%
Oregon 1210 97 594 1900 3750 64% 2140 36% 5890 78%
Arizona 195 28.1 770 993 3220 63% 1900 37% 5120 75%
Wyoming 184 4.12 892 1080 4410 90% 490 10% 4900 93%
Utah 625 1.45 710 1340 3060 85% 554 15% 3614 72%
Washington 1270 86.1 221 1580 2630 75% 894 25% 3524 63%
Kansas 2840 18.1 217 3080 179 5% 3230 95% 3409 76%
Florida 548 712 731 1990 1500 46% 1770 54% 3270 20%
New Mexico 461 19.6 397 878 1640 54% 1390 46% 3030 86%