water conservation techniques in agriculture

10 Water Conservation Techniques in Agriculture

Jane Marsh - January 22, 2020

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Water is essential for life, but it is also an integral part of modern agriculture. We often plant in areas that don’t receive enough annual rainfall to support the crops we need to grow to feed the country and the world. This is where irrigation techniques come in — but as with most things, they’re not all created equal. As the population grows and water becomes an even more valuable resource, conservation techniques will become a requirement in the agriculture industry. Here are 10 water conservation techniques you can use today, whether you’re seeding a farm or just growing a garden in your backyard. 

1. Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation isn’t a new concept, but as water conservation continues to grow in importance, it will likely gain popularity. Instead of irrigating the entire plant from above, drip irrigation uses pipes to drip water slowly onto the roots of the plants. This conserves between 20-50% of the water you would otherwise use in irrigation while reducing other negatives like runoff, surface evaporation and the potential for overwatering.

2. Drought-Tolerant Crops

Climate change means drought is becoming a growing threat in many parts of the world. Rather than using more water for irrigation — considering the fact that the global agriculture industry is already using up to 70% of the world’s freshwater supply — farmers in drought-afflicted areas are turning to drought-tolerant crops. These crops are designed, either by traditional methods or genetic manipulation, to use less water while still providing the necessary yields. In countries like Namibia, these new resistant crops are contributing to food security, ensuring everyone has enough to eat. 

3. Collect and Store Rainwater

While these farms might not receive enough rain to account for all of their irrigation needs, that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from collecting and storing rainwater as a way to conserve water supplies. Reclaiming water reduces the stress that farms large and small can put on the surrounding environment. If it rains regularly, and the farm has the means to purify the water if it’s going to be used for drinking as well as irrigation, this can be an incredibly useful thing when it comes to water conservation.

4. Optimize Watering Times

It’s generally accepted that watering during the heat of the day is only going to waste your water, but when is the best time to water? Here’s a hint — it’s not at the same time every day like you might think. The Internet of Things is beginning to make its way into agriculture. Soil sensors can monitor water levels and soil health remotely and even control irrigation, reducing the amount of human oversight necessary to get the best outcome possible while conserving water. 

5. Laser Field Leveling

One of the biggest sources of water waste is runoff because the fields or gardens where you’re planting aren’t perfectly level, so any water that doesn’t soak into the soil immediately flows away. Laser land leveling reduces or even eliminates the problem of runoff by using lasers and other tools to make the field perfectly level before crops are planted, reducing runoff and, by proxy, preventing waste and promoting conservation. 

6. Tailwater Reuse

If laser leveling is an option, you aren’t stuck with a lot of runoff that you have to deal with. Tailwater — as this runoff is known in the agricultural industry — can be collected and reused for irrigation. This is especially useful in an organic growing sector where you won’t have to worry about excessive chemicals that might collect in that tailwater. All you need for this is a ditch or a buried container for the water to collect in, and a way to return it to whatever type of irrigation you use.

7. Subsurface Irrigation

This takes drip irrigation to the next level. Instead of using small amounts of water on the surface, letting it drip down into the soil, subsurface irrigation requires burying your irrigation pipes below the ground before you plant your crops. They evenly distribute the water among the plant roots. There’s almost no waste, and they free up the surface area around the plant for other activities. 

8. Mulch or Black Plastic

Laying black plastic or using black plastic mulch is useful for more than just preventing weed growth. It also helps to keep soil warmer in cool climates. This prevents water from evaporating, keeping the soil moist and reduces the amount of water you’ll need to irrigate crops. The only downside of this type of water conservation is that it prevents rain from reaching the roots, so you will need to irrigate year-round. You can offset this by setting up rainwater containers to collect and reuse the rain that falls on your farm. 

9. Gravity Drip Buckets

This might not be a useful tool for large fields. But for someone who is planting a backyard garden and wants to conserve water, it’s a fun afternoon project. All you need is a clean five-gallon bucket with a lid, a drill and some vinyl or polyethylene tubing. Elevate the bucket and stick the end of your tube in the ground near your plants. Gravity will do the work for you. You’ll never have to worry about overwatering because the soil will simply stop absorbing the water once it’s saturated. 

10. Gated Pipe Irrigation

We’re looking back into the past to find ways to conserve water in the present. In the 1940s, gated pipe irrigation was popular — this process spread water into unlined ditches and allowed it to saturate the soil, while preventing waste by limiting its flow into those ditches. It’s a very simple technique that can easily be upgraded by incorporating IoT sensors in the soil and remote or autonomous gates in each of the pipes. 

The Future of Water Conservation

As the population of our planet continues to grow, water conservation will become even more important. This is particularly important in fields like agriculture that already use so much of the planet’s fresh water supply. Even if you’re just setting up a small garden in your backyard, you can adopt many of these techniques to help you conserve water in your own home. 

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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 Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.