Surge irrigation saves money, water

In his local farming community, Brad Williams is known as an innovator. So when the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office suggested to Williams that he could save water, reduce irrigation and fertilizer costs, and get a boost in his yields through the use of something called a “surge valve,” the Missourian's polite response was predictable: “Show me,” he said.

That was more than six years ago. Now, Williams is a true believer in the economic power of conservation. He sees the proof in his cotton yields during the growing season and on his farm's bottom line throughout the year.

For Williams, the eye-opener came when he tested two different irrigation techniques on adjacent cotton fields shortly after deciding to give the surge valve a try. On one field, he used a traditional furrow irrigation system. On the other he used a surge valve he borrowed from his local soil and water conservation district.

True to his previous experience, the water in the traditional furrow irrigation field never made it to the end of the rows even after 36 hours of irrigating. But after only 24 hours using the surge valve system, Williams was amazed that most of the rows were completely and evenly watered.

“At that point, I didn't have to run any more tests, “Williams said. “I was sold right then and there.”

John Hester, an irrigation specialist with the NRCS in Dexter, Mo., said the surge valve acts as a butterfly valve that directs water to one section of a field, then switches to another field and back, at timed intervals. By alternating the application of water from one section of the field to the other, the sandy soils of southeastern Missouri are allowed to “seal,” which prevents the next surge of water from draining through the same area of topsoil. The end result is that the water can be evenly distributed throughout the rows with a minimum amount of water lost to deep percolation.

Hester said studies conducted on several Missouri furrow irrigation farms demonstrate the value of surge valves. “Those studies show that using a surge valve resulted in a 20 percent to 50 percent water savings, and reduced deep percolation and runoff,” he said. “The conservation benefits of that technology are significant.”

But from a producer's perspective, Williams needed to know if using the surge valve would pay.

“My first priority,” Williams said, “was to help myself financially — to stay in business.”

With the cost of each surge valve at more than $1,300 (he needed a total of 10 for his entire farming operation), Williams would not have been able to afford the cost — despite the obvious benefits.

Fortunately, conservation cost-share assistance was available through the USDA. At that point, Williams said, the decision became “a no- brainer.”

In Missouri today, producers can apply for cost-share through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. “Thanks to that program, more than 40,000 acres of irrigated land now utilize surge valves in southeast Missouri,” NRCS' Hester said.

It didn't take long for Williams to witness the positive impact conservation was having on his family's Century Farm. “The first, and most obvious benefit, is the reduction in my pumping costs,” he said.

“Second, my fertilizer costs are lower because less of it leaches out in the new irrigation process. And finally, we've noticed a slight increase in yields, because I'm not over-watering some areas and under-watering others.”

And if those benefits weren't enough to make him a believer, Williams was able to realize a significant reduction in labor costs.

“Because of the increase in irrigation efficiencies, I'm personally spending less time in the field, and my paid labor costs are down as well.”

As critical as the bottom line is to his business, Williams also knows that the benefits of irrigation water management transcend pure economics, resulting in numerous benefits to the environment.

“I'm using less fuel in pumping water,” he said. “Less fuel use means fewer emissions into the atmosphere. And because I have better irrigation control, there's less runoff and leaching of fertilizers and herbicides — all of which lead to better water,” Williams said.

The 2002 farm bill could provide additional incentives for cotton producers and others to invest in conservation systems. “Depending on the identified local resource priorities,” said NRCS Chief Bruce I. Knight, “cost-share and incentive payments may be available to help producers offset the costs of installing and maintaining conservation systems, including irrigation water management systems.”

But even with the authorization increases in farm bill conservation programs, Knight said, conservation demands still outpace available program funding, so natural resource priorities and cost-share rates will have to be decided at the state and local levels.

“Most of the decisions regarding conservation priorities and cost-share rates will be determined by the state conservationists, with advice from state technical committees and local working groups,” he said.

Ron Nichols is a writer for USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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