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Scarcity Breeding Increasingly Innovative Water-Saving Strategies in Agriculture

By incorporating new technologies and tactics into farming practices, agriculture can promote more efficient irrigation and water management — and play a major role in global water conservation and reuse.

Agricultural water use has become a complex issue around the world. Water is the main input needed for crop production; yet, in many regions, water from precipitation is not sufficient or does not occur at the right time for optimum plant growth or crop yield.

In the United States, nearly 56 million crop acres — or about 25 percent of all farmland — are irrigated, according to the USDA’s 2018 census. Globally, irrigated agriculture represents about 20 percent of total cultivated land.

The growing awareness to conserve water has stimulated innovation around the world. Farmers, nonprofits, engineers, companies and organizations are using a host of strategies and technologies to produce crops with less water:

  • A wastewater treatment plant in Reggio Emilia, Italy, supplies purified wastewater to irrigate about 5,000 acres of crops via canals — which conserves surface water and groundwater for other uses. The system offers traceability, real-time water flow rates and other data.

  • Heavily subsidized electricity and solar pumps for irrigation have depleted groundwater in parts of India. A government program in Karnataka State now requires local electrical companies to buy back surplus solar power from farmers. Treating solar power as a cash crop to power irrigation adds an economic incentive for farmers. According to Tushaar Shah, an International Water Management Institute senior fellow based in India, “Solar pumps can unlock India’s energy-irrigation logjam — and [in] other parts of South Asia, as well — if the right incentives are made to farmers to manage groundwater resources sustainably.”

  • Even smaller farming operations are finding opportunities to manage irrigation and the quality of water leaving their fields. Tim Scatessoybean farm in southern Illinois irrigates 35 to 40 percent of its acres each year with technology that mimics ideal raindrops — large enough not to evaporate, but small and slow enough to not compact the soil — using varying nozzle sizes, water pressures and spray patterns. Scates uses calculations from solar-powered soil moisture probes to decide when and how much to irrigate for maximum return on investment. “We don’t want to waste any water — or the energy it takes to pump it,” Scates says.

  • The Niger Basin Authority aims to make the Niger Basin, which reaches parts of nine countries, a space for sustainable development through water resource management by 2025. The plan includes irrigation and food-security projects such as water storage for a joint irrigation and fish culture program, and infrastructure rehabilitation.

  • The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas develops perennial alternatives to food crops. Kernza — which can be used in place of wheat to make beer and pasta — is bred from a forage wheatgrass. It uses less water and allows more soil carbon sequestration.

  • The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) — developed in the 1980s in Madagascar — increases irrigated rice productivity with soil, water and nutrient-management practices. SRI methods increase yields 20 to 50 percent, while reducing irrigation water use by 30 percent to 50 percent, compared with conventional systems.

  • A Chilean engineer developed a system that turns wastewater into clean water in just four hours using earthworms and microbes. The earthworms feed on waste, breaking down nutrients and potential contaminants. Layers of sawdust, wood shavings, and gravel or rocks remove solids. Both layers contain bacteria that further break down organic material, leaving clean water to be chlorinated for safety.

  • In the Murray-Darling BasinAustralia’s most complex river system — water can be bought and sold based on supply and demand. Water users participate in regulated markets to purchase water to meet their needs, which encourages water use efficiency and protects availability. These markets are a vital business tool for farmers and producers.

The Illinois Soybean Association and other agricultural groups support the work of Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, which measures the environmental footprint of agriculture that is outcome-based, science-based and technology-neutral.

Field to Market released its first National Indicators Report in 2009. The sustainability indicators include energy and land use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon, soil conservation, irrigated water use and water quality.

By incorporating new technologies and tactics into farming practices, agriculture can promote more efficient irrigation and water management — and play a major role in global water conservation and reuse.