The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service is gearing up its irrigation projects again this summer after reducing water use by 25 percent last summer at around two dozen Arkansas fields. The goal is to show farmers how they can maintain the same crop yield while using less water. Reducing water usage saves farmers money and helps alleviate sustainability concerns.
Chris Henry, assistant professor and water-management engineer at the UA Rice Research and extension center, plans to add about 30 more fields this year with funds from the Rice, Corn and Grain, and Soybean promotion boards.
The Arkansas Water Plan was approved last year by the Arkansas National Resources Commission and was compiled with data from the 2010 U.S. Geological Survey. According to the survey, data indicated that Arkansas is among the top water users in the country, despite having a smaller population and size. Statistics showed that Arkansas was the fourth-largest total water user, and was the second-largest user of groundwater. The water plan, in addition to the state’s 2015 groundwater report, indicated that current water-use trends in Arkansas were not sustainable long-term.
The commission is currently working with agricultural groups to install meters to get better groundwater measurements, as their projections have been disputed, but their current projections indication that about 80 percent of eastern Arkansas won’t be able to irrigate in 40 years.
The Arkansas Water Plan has been approved by the Natural Resource Commission’s board of commissioners, as well as Governor Asa Hutchinson, but it cannot be adopted officially until the Arkansas Legislature approves it.
Edward Swaim, a water plan developer, believes that Arkansas’s position as a top water user will not change with the release of the 2015 Geological Survey data, citing Arkansas’s production of crops like corn, grains and rice that require a lot of water. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas farmers planted about half of the nation’s rice acreage for 2015, and producing all that rice requires flooding of fields.
Drew Westerman, a hydrologist and geographic information system specialist for the Geological Survey in Arkansas, explains that even with the projections from east Arkansas, there are other states in worse shape when it comes to water usage and resources. Other states near the top of the usage list, including California, Nebraska and Texas, are faced with more immediate needs. Westerman states, “We have been very fortunate to be a water-rich state.”
Swaim discusses the projects taking place to reduce water usage to sustainable levels in east Arkansas. Conservation projects like Henry’s water-saving project could ideally achieve 25 percent of the necessary reduction, while two major irrigation projects (Bayou Meto and Grand Prairie) would make up the rest.
The funding for these irrigation projects has been 65 percent federal and 35 percent local in the past decade or so. The Grand Prairie project aims to double the amount of usable, aboveground water storage by building new reservoirs between the White and Arkansas Rivers, while the Bayou Meto project will divert water from the Arkansas River as part of a process that converts groundwater to surface water for irrigation.
Other water-saving projects have been in the works for years. In recent months, flow meters have been installed on wells in the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer. The meters installed so far have been placed in areas that cited water use was being overreported, although Swaim’s opinion is that overreporting wouldn’t drastically change the water plan’s projections. In addition, the Natural Resources Commission and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service have been working together to hire four new people to work on irrigation management with farmers in east Arkansas.
Arkansas has received $4.5 million in funds for the “Rice Stewardship Partnership – Sustaining the Future of Rice,” which is a $10 million program in several major rice producing states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, California and Texas. The project assesses water quantity and quality by estimating the bird population an area can sustain, based on the idea that bird population correlates with surface-water levels. Merle Anders, a retired University of Arkansas professor working on the project, cites other benefits of reducing water usage, including the reduction of methane emissions from flooding the fields and a reduction in arsenic levels in the rice.
Some longer-standing initiatives include the promotion of tail-water recovery and computer programs that are more efficient in dispatching water to fields. The process of tail-water recovery, although it can take years to pay off, involves collecting, storing and transporting excess water on a field to be reused in irrigation. Products like Pipe Planner and Phaucet are computer programs that can reduce water use by an average of 25 percent. These programs use data to change the size of holes in pipes that release water onto a field with rows of crops, which will combat the problem of pipes sending excess water to shorter rows of crops.
Not any single project can have the necessary effect on water usage reduction in Arkansas, but the culmination of several different projects and initiatives throughout the state are key to achieving sustainable water usage levels in the long-term.
Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette