Agriculture accounts for over 70% percent of our country’s consumptive water use, which makes water use a critical natural resource issue.

NRCS helps farmers and ranchers conserve water with organic practices that build healthy soil that increase their water holding capacity. Farmers also use conservation tillage and mulching to keep the ground covered and reduce water loss through evaporation. They can also achieve water savings and create biodiversity by using crop rotations and cover crops to retain soil while building soil organic matter.

And these practices add up.

A one percent increase in soil organic matter can help the soil retain an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre that can be banked and made available when plants need it most.

We’ve used the NRCS program for intermediate water management, so we’re actually tracking the soil moisture that’s available to plants multiple times per week. Now, we’re only watering when it’s necessary. It’s important not only for soil quality, but to benefit water quality and water conservation through efficient irrigation, and these benefits also come across in the quality of the produce grown here.

RYAN POWER
Certified Organic Farmer
New Family Farm
Sebastopol, CA

 

NRCS can help farmers with irrigation management practices that maximize water efficiency.

DOWNLOAD THE "GROWING ORGANIC: IRRIGATION AND WATER MANAGEMENT" EBOOK

NRCS can help farmers with their irrigation management plans in several ways, including cost share support or technical assistance, which is especially useful for organic producers.

NRCS Conservationists can help develop irrigation management plans that combine conservation principles with efficiency, balancing the farm’s water needs with those of nature. To achieve maximum irrigation efficiency, they can help define the optimal water volume, frequency and flow to enhance soil health, reduce energy consumption, minimize soil erosion, improve water quality and achieve greater crop yields.

“Organic operations are very complex,” Jarod Seaman, NRCS Natural Resources Specialist in Salem, OR observes. “They have different cropping systems that require different amounts of water at different times of the year. We’ve been able to help Minto financially and technically by making designs and helping implement a comprehensive water strategy.” Chris Miller of Minto Island Growers agrees. “The single greatest [NRCS] benefit for us has been the irrigation infrastructure.”

WHEEL LINE

A portable irrigation system that can be programmed to roll over and irrigate a large field quickly and efficiently.

“The wheel line has totally changed my life. Before we had it, I was working long hours moving hundreds of irrigation pipes by myself.”


CHRIS MILLER
Organic Farmer
Minto Island Farm
Salem, OR

NRCS CAN WORK WITH FARMERS TO DEVELOP IRRIGATION WATER MANAGEMENT PLANS THAT USE SENSING TOOLS TO CONSERVE WATER AND SAVE MONEY.

Well-managed organic systems rely on slow-release forms of nutrients, which reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching. These practices help maintain water quality, while enhanced soil structure, water infiltration, and better nutrient retention also protect water quality. Tools like drip irrigation, which provides water precisely where and when it’s needed most. The addition of flow meters and soil moisture sensors allow farmers to achieve even greater precision by helping to take the guesswork out of irrigation by using science to measure the available water around a crop’s root zone. “Rather than treating all crops with the same amount of water, the soil moisture test helps us to water only when necessary. notes Eli, an organic farmer at Georgia’s Front Field Farm.

SOIL MOISTURE SENSOR

A device that measure soil moisture tension at various depths, depending on soil and plant type. The data from soil moisture tests provides many benefits. They insure that plants receive the correct amount of water, becoming less stressed during growth. Soil fertility also improves, pathogens are controlled, and nutrient-leaching is mitigated. Overall plant yields often increase as well. Such control is critical for crops in high tunnels, which depend on precision irrigation instead of rainfall for proper growth.

DRIP IRRIGATION

A system of plastic tubing with sophisticated drippers spaced at a set distance that enables the slow, precise and targeted application of water and NUTRIENTS to a specific location at the root of the plant in a way which maximizes water utilization while preventing water evaporation, runoff and waste.

HOW CAN FARMERS IN DROUGHT-STRICKEN AREAS MAINTAIN WATER SECURITY AND MEET THEIR IRRIGATION DEMANDS WHILE PROTECTING FISH AT THESAME TIME?

Fifth Crow Farm works with NRCS specialists to craft site-specific plans that pay careful consideration to fish and wildlife habitat and other biological resources. These plans allow the farm to draw water during off-peak hours, then store it onsite for later use. “Butano Creek is far from restored,” James says, “but we’re making some progress on water extraction issues by working with willing partners.”

“This stream is the lifeblood of our farm.”

JOHN VARS
Certified Organic Farmer
Fifth Crow Farm
Pescadero, CA

FISH AND WILDLIFE HABITAT MANAGEMENT PLAN

An NRCS conservation plan can help farmers and ranchers manage their water use to protect anadromous fish populations as well as other downstream users. This is important to organic producers, because USDA Organic regulations require they maintain or improve natural resources and improve wildlife.

FIFTH CROW FARM'S IRRIGATION WATER MANAGEMENT PLAN

1. SUCTION HOSES pull water from the creek with FISH-FRIENDLY SCREENS.

2. Buried PVC PIPE conveys water from stream to farm.

3. Water pumped from Butano Creek in off-peak hours is stored in six 5,000-gallon WATER TANKS to ensure water availability can be time-shifted for peak hour use.

4. SMALL PUMP pulls water at a slower rate to fill the tanks overnight when energy costs are lower.

5. LARGE PUMP conveys water from the tanks at a higher rate for irrigation use throughout the day.

6. ELECTRIC PANEL programmed to regulate water use.

7. VARIABLE FREQUENCY DRIVES match different pump speeds depending on water requirements in the field; controlling pressure and flow greatly conserves energy and water use

THE USDA’S NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE CAN HELP FARMERS SECURE NEW WATER SOURCES AND OPTIMIZE THEIR USE TO INCREASE CROP YIELDS WHILE MAINTAINING GOOD CONSERVATION PRACTICES.

How does Wanda take a topographic survey? “You have to set up a base station, which reads the satellites. Then you set up the rover (which you walk around with to get survey points) so that it communicates with the base station. The rover has a data collector that allows the user to see in real-time her location and elevation. I use the data collector to shoot the points and store the survey data that will be used to develop a topo map of the location just surveyed.”

“I provide technical assistance on any natural resource concern that’s out there. I do designs for stream bank stabilization and waste storage facilities, but the bulk of my work right now is providing irrigation technical assistance. At Front Field farm, I’ll use the data I collect to lay out an irrigation design that helps determine how much water the crops need and improve water use on their farm.”

 

WANDA WETLESEN-SHEPHERD
USDA/NRCS
Agricultural Engineer
Athens, GA

AGRICULTURAL ENGINEER

Responsible for providing technical guidance and the overall planning, design, installation and maintenance of the agricultural engineering phases of conservation activities.

Why is this helpful for Jacqui Coburn of Front Field Farm in Covington, GA? “Wanda first assessed our soils to help determine how much water they’ll retain,” Jacqui notes. “Then she mapped out every inch of every field so she would know how many row feet we would have and how many drip tapes we would need. Then she figured out what size pipe we would need to run enough water to each of these fields to water whatever crop we were planting.”