Feb 23, 2022
Managing Field Irrigation Systems
Arizona agriculture utilizes ~ 70% of the water in this state and generates a strong and productive industry. Arizona agriculture generates more than $23B in sales as well as directly and indirectly supporting more than 138,000 Arizona jobs and employing more than 162,000 unique workers. Arizona ranks among leading states in the production of lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cantaloupe, honeydew melons, durum wheat, and other commodities. Arizona is an important area for the seed production of many crops that are used across the U.S. and worldwide. Many Arizona counties rank in the top 1% of all U.S. counties in terms of crop and livestock production (Murphree, 2018).
In response to the Colorado River (CR) water shortage and the current reductions in CR allocations to Arizona via the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which is primarily impacting agricultural irrigation districts in central Arizona, there is an increasing level of scrutiny on agricultural uses of Arizona water. This of course is accentuated with the recognition that agriculture utilizes ~ 70% of the Arizona water supply.
In the irrigation districts along the mainstem of the CR, there is a common adage of “First in use, first in right.” This is a fundamental aspect of the “law of the river”, which is an amalgam of the various laws, agreements, and rulings on the governance of CR water. Therefore, it is important for us to consider and prepare the positive case that can be made for the good stewardship of water resources provided by Arizona agriculture.
One common area of criticism that is directed towards Arizona crop production systems, is the use of surface and flood irrigation systems. The alternative irrigation methods that are commonly advocated for use instead of flood irrigation are methods such as drip irrigation, micro-irrigation systems, sprinklers, etc. Each of these are good irrigation methods and advantageous under the appropriate conditions. However, a good case can be made for the very efficient use of flood irrigation systems, particularly with high-flow turnouts and dead level (or very nearly so) basins for irrigation. When properly managed, these types of flood irrigation systems can be very efficient.
When we know the area to be irrigated, the flow rate of water in the irrigation delivery ditch, and the amount of water needed; then we can determine the proper time or duration for an irrigation event. If we can get fast and uniform coverage of the field to be irrigated, apply the proper volume of water to replenish the plant-available water supply to the soil, then cut off the flow of irrigation water into the field; we can do a very good job of delivery for high water-use efficiency.
To facilitate the process of managing individual irrigations for optimum efficiency, the Irrigator’s Equation can be used to estimate the depth of water applied or time (duration) of an irrigation event.
Q x t = d x A
Where: Q = the flow rate, in cubic feet per second (cfs);
t = the set time or total time of irrigation (hours);
d = the depth of water applied (inches) and
A = the area irrigated (acres).
With an understanding of the dominant soil type in the field being irrigated and the level of soil-water depletion at the time of irrigation, we can estimate the amount or depth of water needed to replenish the soil profile of plant-available water to support the crop and prevent water stress.
In managing crop fields and irrigations, we recognize that soil textures vary in terms of water holding capacities and it is important to understand the dominant soil textures in the field, not only on the surface but also through the depths of the soil profile through the effective rooting depth of the crop, Tables 1 & 2.
Collectively, we can manage surface or flood irrigation systems efficiently. In the crop production arena, it is important to communicate these points effectively.
Table 1. Soil texture and water holding capacity.
2. Depths to which the roots of mature crops will deplete the available water supply when grown in a deep permeable, well-drained soil under average conditions.
Source: Chapter 11, "Sprinkler Irrigation," Section 15, Natural Resources Conservation Service National Engineering Handbook
Murphree, J. 2018. Arizona Agriculture is 23 Billion Dollars Beautiful, Arizona Farm Bureau.
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