N-Drip irrigation can save Arizona a lot of water. Do farmers bite?

2021-11-12 10:17:23 By : Ms. Mary Ying

What if farmers could use half of the current water without sacrificing crop yields?

Arizona will be a different place.

According to the latest Federal Farm Census in 2018, the state has approximately 946,000 acres of farmland and an estimated 4.4 million acre-feet of water is used.

If farmers reduce their water consumption by 50%, theoretically 2.2 million acre-feet of land could be freed up for reinvestment in the industry or to support other uses.

But let us be realistic.

Even if the drip irrigation system can bring these savings to individual farmers — and more and more evidence shows that it can — it is impossible to see such large savings across the state. Almost every farmer must install the system and use it correctly (or chewing gophers with drip tapes like candy).

However, if this kind of drip irrigation system becomes more common, the savings will still be considerable, because agriculture accounts for 72% of the state's water consumption, and only 8% of the farmland is supplied by drip irrigation systems.

Currently, drip irrigation is relatively rare in Arizona because it is too expensive. The system may require a lot of maintenance and specific expertise to truly save water.

Not to mention, few farmers own the land they cultivate, and the profit margins of commonly grown but water-intensive crops such as cotton and alfalfa are very low, so it is difficult to make such a major investment.

If we want more farmers to seize the opportunity of this technology, we must make it cheaper, easier, and more attractive to make changes.

Enter N-Drip, an Israeli company that manufactures gravity drip irrigation systems. 

This system is different from traditional drip irrigation because it does not require expensive pumps or filters to keep the water flowing.

Instead, it uses the pull of gravity, just like the way flood irrigation works, the transmitter is designed not to be blocked by tiny particles in the water often.

The result is that the cost of this device is only a fraction of the cost of traditional drip irrigation-the company says this device can save a lot of water and fertilizer without sacrificing the crop yield that farmers need to maintain their livelihoods.

I know. This sounds like a unicorn. N-Drip is keenly aware of the skepticism of farmers. 

This is why it has established demonstration projects globally and in Arizona-to show farmers how the system performs in the real world, and to support them through the learning curve of drip irrigation. 

The company cooperated with the Arizona Center project to pay for the installation cost, and cooperated with the University of Arizona to study the water use of the N-Drip field and the adjacent flood-irrigated field of the same size.

A series of tests began on a small plot of land in Yuma in 2019, and has since expanded to more and more fields, and a demonstration project of approximately 800 acres is planned for next year.

Two years of trials with sorghum on the lands of the Colorado River Indian tribes have saved 40% to 50% of water and slightly increased crop yields. 

A similar experiment started this year in Harquahala Valley, where the N-Drip field is expected to save 40% of water at harvest and increase production by about 15%.

Perhaps more important is the test of alfalfa next year, which is the most thirsty of the three crops. Considering that the state's production area exceeded 300,000 acres in 2018, and alfalfa uses an average of 5.8 acre-feet of water per acre, if calculated proportionally, even a 30% reduction in water consumption may quickly add up. Farm census.

(By comparison, approximately 22,000 acres of sorghum uses an average of 4.4 acre-feet per acre, while approximately 165,000 acres of cotton uses 4.6 acre-feet per acre.)

Of course, another part is about scaling up.

We will need thousands of acres instead of hundreds of acres to achieve meaningful water savings. There are still unknowns, such as how long the drip irrigation belt will last and how to prevent it from suffering significant damage during the crop rotation-all of which may affect the final calculations for farmers to make this leap.

This is also an unresolved question on how to deal with water conservation: Should farmers use it for production in other fields or provide it to other users for free?

It is obvious that agriculture in Arizona must change to survive, especially in places like Pinal County, where water shortages have forced many farmers to decide which fields to keep and which fields to fallow.

Obviously, farmers need more help from businesses, non-profit organizations, and water suppliers to break the long-standing barriers that have been difficult to invest in improving efficiency or finding new markets for low-water-consuming crops.

This is why the partnership between N-Drip and CAP-and Bridgestone's separate effort to help farmers grow water-saving anemones-is so important.

If we take water conservation seriously, we will need to do more of these efforts to find effective methods and quickly scale them up.

Contact Allhands at joanna.allhands@arizonarepublic.com. On Twitter: @joannaallhands.

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