Growers improve irrigation efficiency

If rice growers don't find new ways to reduce their water use, then state regulators could step in with some suggestions of their own. That take-home message was drilled to growers attending a recent field day at Dulaney Seed near Clarksdale, Miss.

Irrigation is intense in the Mississippi Delta, and it's putting great demand on the alluvial aquifer here,” says Cade Smith, weed scientist at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. “The crisis that has developed in Arkansas has caught the attention of regulators in Mississippi. It's more important than ever before for producers to show that we are taking proactive steps in Mississippi to avoid such a crisis happening here, and avoid unnecessary regulations.”

While water tables in the Mississippi Delta have lowered somewhat during times of high water use, the region is not yet facing an immediate water availability problem. That doesn't mean, however, that the region is immune to experiencing the water shortage crisis being faced by other areas of the country.

“We have a tremendous potential opportunity to implement irrigation practices that could result in great water savings, and insure that a water crisis situation doesn't develop here,” says Smith.

One way rice producers can reduce their water use, Smith says, is to adopt side-inlet irrigation or multiple inlet irrigation systems on their farms.

On average, the Mississippi Delta receives 9.5 inches of rainfall during the months of June, July and August. Side-inlet irrigation greatly increases growers' ability to capture that water, Smith says.

In a side-inlet irrigation system, flexible plastic pipe is run down the side of the field, watering the field from side to side instead of from end to end. The system, which is slowly finding fans among Delta rice growers, provides water to each cut in the field at the same time through holes in the plastic pipe. Proponents of the system say it waters a field more quickly, saves water and labor, reduces energy costs, improves weed control, and eliminates cold water areas in the field.

“With the multiple inlet system and intermittent flooding it is not necessary for rice water to continually be running through levee gates for adequate irrigation. It also allows us to flood up a field earlier than we would using conventional irrigation methods,” Smith says.

He says, “Our goal is to make the Mississippi Delta the sustainable center of rice production for years to come. That means shifting our mindset from watering rice to managing irrigation for optimum efficiency.”

On average in Mississippi it costs $50 per acre to irrigate rice. With a stationary re-lift pump, that cost is reduced to $20 to $30 per acre, according to Smith.

Terry Dulaney of Clarksdale, Miss., says, “Two years ago we were irrigating rice through levee gates. We tried side-inlet irrigation on one full field last year, and this year every rice field on our farm is either side-inlet or multiple inlet irrigation.”

These alternative irrigation systems allow the Dulaneys to reduce their water use. “We're able to spread the water out, and we're seeing the benefits with easier watering, less labor and water savings,” he says.

His nephew, Wayne Dulaney, agrees, calling side-inlet irrigation a “very conservation friendly practice.”

“We've seen a huge efficiency increase, and a huge decrease in both our water use and the labor needed to irrigate our farm,” he says. “We've also been able to reduce our herbicide costs because we are distributing the water on the fields quicker.”

Mississippi Extension rice specialist Joe Street says, “This water issue is for real. DEQ has said that we are not going to let our grandchildren inherit a water problem, and we're going to reduce our water use in the Delta. That means we will all reduce our water use, either voluntarily or through regulations, whether that be permitting, monitoring, and other regulations. We all need to begin thinking about how we're going to conserve water.”

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