sustainable irrigation

Sustainable Irrigation Systems to Reduce Agricultural Water Waste

Jane Marsh - January 8, 2020

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Agriculture, especially on large factory farms, is massively water-intensive —  according to the USDA, agriculture accounts for around 80% of all H2O use in the United States. As a result, many farmers are looking for ways to reduce waste and improve their farms’ sustainability.

Traditional irrigation systems can be wasteful in many different ways. However, they don’t have to be. With the right design, they can use as little water as possible while still providing enough to plants without reducing yields.

Here’s how farmers can reduce agricultural water waste with the right irrigation system design.

How Irrigation Is Used in American Agriculture

Irrigation is a common feature of American agriculture — especially in dry states like California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, where irrigated farms can produce as much of 90% of all crops sold. However, its use isn’t just limited to dry environments. The most recent research shows that irrigation is becoming more common throughout nearly all of the U.S., including wetter states like Georgia and Florida.

All this irrigation uses a huge amount of water. This presents a challenge from sustainability-minded farmers, who may have to rely on irrigation but are still aware of how water-intensive it can be.

Many of these farms use water-intensive surface irrigation systems — like center pivot irrigation, which uses large sprinkler systems on wheels to provide crops with hydration. Many of these systems, especially those used on large factory farms, are designed without much concern for the amount of liquid being used. Instead, their focus is on reducing labor and installation expenses at the cost of the environment.

Farmers have other options, however. With more efficient irrigation systems, farms can reduce their water use and start irrigating crops sustainably.

Building Sustainable Irrigation Systems

One study, published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, found that it’s possible to reduce irrigation water usage without a major impact on crop yield with the use of systems like drip irrigation.

This is one of the most common types of localized irrigation, which are systems that deliver water directly to each plant instead of the entire field. This is in contrast to something like center pivot irrigation, which provides hydration from above the ground and mists the whole area. Drip irrigation tries to bring water as close to the roots of a plant as possible. With drip irrigation, a network of pipes runs water through a field and delivers it as close to plant roots as possible using emitters, drip lines, sprinklers or sprayers.

Compared to surface irrigation systems, drip irrigation can reduce agricultural water usage by as much as 30-70% by improving efficiency and reducing the amount of water lost to run-off and evaporation.

Localized irrigation, however, often requires permanent or semi-permanent infrastructure. This means higher upfront costs for farmers compared to other, less efficient methods. These costs are one of the reasons these systems aren’t widely used.

As a result, its not always possible for farmers to switch to localized irrigation systems. In cases like these, they can use advanced ag-tech to improve surface systems and reduce water use.

Smart irrigation systems can use internet-connected sensors to help farmers know when to water and how much water to use. They can also note the best time to deploy irrigation pivots, which can save farmers both on water and energy. The right ag-tech solution in the right place can be a huge water-saver for many farms.

Other Ways to Conserve Water

There are other strategies farmers can use to conserve water. For example, organic mulch can help keep soil hydrated by protecting it from the sun and reducing evaporation. This can both reduce the water needed from irrigation systems and provide other benefits — like reduced erosion and consistent soil temperature.

The use of mulch can also be a critical component of regenerative ag practices that help farmers restore degraded farmland and improve crop yields. Finding alternative sources can also be a huge boon for farmers looking to reduce their water consumption. Storing rainwater and using it in irrigation systems rather than relying on wells or running water sources is one option. The use of recycled wastewater in irrigation systems is another possibility.

Farmers can also reduce water use with smart planting choices. Growing crops that are the best fit for their local environment and choosing drought-resistant cultivars can help reduce the amount of water needed.

All these strategies, coupled with sustainable ag-tech — like farm-friendly solar systems and electric equipment — can seriously improve the environmental impact of agriculture.

Reducing Water Use With Sustainable Irrigation

Many irrigation systems are designed to reduce labor and equipment costs without regard for water use and environmental impact. This is partially why agriculture is one of the biggest consumers of water in the United States. Irrigation, however, doesn’t have to be unsustainable or environmentally unfriendly. Instead, farmers can use localized irrigation techniques to deliver water only where it’s needed. These systems are more efficient and can reduce water lost to run-off. Combined with other sustainable ag techniques, like the use of mulch, alternative water sources and eco-friendly ag-tech, these irrigation systems can significantly reduce the environmental impact of any farm.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.