More precious than oil or gold is water to the farmer – even in Arkansas, where abundant rivers, lakes and streams help keep many fields regularly hydrated. But as agriculture remains heavily dependent on this finite resource, the state and its farmers are already taking important measures toward water conservation.
Mike Sullivan, a farmer growing rice, soybeans, corn and wheat on 8,500 acres in Northeast Arkansas near Osceola, is utilizing new technologies to become more water efficient.
“We are trying to get everything automated,” says Sullivan of the farm’s irrigation system, which has computer monitoring on all irrigation wells to prevent over-pumping. “These same controls keep up with how many gallons are pumped during the growing season … [and since] we can quantify how much we’re using, there’s lots of potential for savings and reduced waste.”
Additionally, Sullivan has equipment in place to study alternative ways to flood fields and identify times when flooding is not necessary. Although data is still being gathered, the results could mean a significant greenhouse-gas footprint reduction in addition to improved water conservation for Arkansas farmers.
Leveling the Playing Field
Just north of Humnoke in Central Arkansas, Isbell Farms is home to three generations of rice farmers, and as far back as the 1970s, the family has been using the zero-grade method to increase water efficiency.
With the help of laser equipment to level the fields and remove slopes, “you can just open a pipe on one end of it and flood the whole field,” farmer Mark Isbell explains.
Based on recent research done at the University of Arkansas, it is “at least 30 percent more efficient to use the method we use by having the fields completely flat, and added to that, it’s a lot less labor,” Isbell says.
The Isbells are also supporters of irrigation projects like the Bayou Meto Water Management Project, which proposes to preserve groundwater resources by rerouting water from the Arkansas River to farms and then redirecting that runoff water back to the river farther downstream.
“We see this project as important not just for farmers, but for the economy and agriculture in this region,” Isbell says, demonstrating that staying involved and educated on water issues is equally critical to conservation efforts. 2014
As irrigation is a profitable, reliable solution for farmers, “we don’t see the use of irrigation going down,” says Edward Swaim, Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC) Water Resources Management division manager.
Instead, ANRC works with farmers by providing education and promoting water saving techniques, financing water management projects and issuing tax credits for conservation. As of late 2013, ANRC is also half way to updating the Arkansas Water Plan and has held several public meetings to engage individuals and groups interested in water use.
One area of concern is groundwater “because it’s such a huge resource – 84 percent of the water for agriculture comes from the ground – we can’t afford to lose it,” Swaim says. Extensive work is already underway to examine the accomplishments and shortfalls since the last Water Plan update in 1990, as well as to quantify how much water is used, what it is used for and where it comes from. These trends in water usage will have a huge impact on future water infrastructure in Arkansas.
In fact, this research on water usage has already “forecasted a 13 percent rise in overall demands in the next 40 years,” Swaim says.
By planning ahead, Swaim is confident that Arkansas and its farmers can work together to prevent future scarcity. “Water is one of the gifts that Arkansas has, and it should encourage good economic health for the state going into the future.”