USDA’s NRCS EQIP program assists Arkansas landowners to overcome water issues
By Walt Delp, PE, and Creston Shrum
Arkansas’ row crop producers are using innovative methods to ensure their crops receive the proper amount of moisture throughout the growing season.
While cropland in the Arkansas delta is abundant, many years water can be scarce.
Arkansas ranks third in the nation in the amount of irrigated acres. The primary source of water is groundwater from the Mississippi River Alluvial Aquifer. But, the aquifer is being depleted faster than the rate of recharge in the primary agricultural area for cultivated crops.
“Though there is a critical decline of groundwater in the aquifer beneath these increasingly irrigated acres, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service uses its programs and technical exper- tise to install systems that convert from groundwater use to surface water utilizing the state’s abundant annual rainfall,” said Mike Sullivan, NRCS state conservationist in Arkansas.
Arkansas’ largest industry is agriculture — adding around $16 billion to the state’s economy annually. The Natural State is first in rice, third in cotton and 10th in soybean production in the nation.
Through technical and financial assistance, NRCS is helping producers develop Irriga- tion Water Management Plans that address their needs and benefit resource concerns.
The Morris Farm, established in 1892 in Lonoke County, has the distinction of producing the first rice crop in Arkansas in 1902. The first irrigation well in the state was also dug on the farm. In the early 1980s the Morris’ constructed a 60-acre reservoir containing approximately 600 acre-feet of water storage to help with their irrigation needs.
Today, Richard Morris, his son, daughter-in- law and daughter farm 1,320 acres primarily growing rice, corn and soybeans. Thanks to the addition of a 17-acre reservoir, a 1,329-foot-long tailwater pit, landleveling, pipe drops and underground pipelines installed through a 2016 NRCS Environmen- tal Quality Incentives Program contract, the farm is able to irrigate with 100 percent surface water. The farm gained 133 acre- feet of water storage through the reservoir and tailwater pit.
“We’ve recognized the need for a sustain- able water source for years,” said Morris. “By converting our operation to 100 percent
surface water, we’re able to ensure a con- sistent water supply, reduce pumping costs and increase productivity.”
The Morris Farm will reduce their pumping costs by 90 percent compared to a similar system pumping groundwater in the area.
Other Arkansas producers are using EQIP to save water, improve water quality and reduce pumping costs through other irrigation water management practices. The practices include planting cover crops, using alternative wetting and drying for growing rice, and watering using polypipe with holes sized to evenly distribute the water over a large acreage of row crops.
“These producers prove there are several methods to reduce the dependence on groundwater and with a systems approach using various practices, sustainability can be attained,” Sullivan said. “These produc- ers are not only increasing their profitabil- ity but protecting one of Arkansas’ most valuable natural resources.
“The problem is large. It requires an all-in approach, using multiple methods and techniques, to reduce or eliminate overuse of groundwater and help achieve sustain- able agriculture in the future,” Sullivan said.
Walt Delp, PE, is the state conservation engineer for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in
Arkansas and leads the engineering team for NRCS in Arkansas. Delp has worked as an engineer for NRCS
for 27 years in Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota and now Arkansas. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural engineering from Iowa State University.
Creston Shrum is a public affairs specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in
Water flows into the 17-acre reservoir on the Morris Farm. The new reservoir allows the Morris’ to use 100 percent surface water on their 1,300-acre operation.
Photo credit: Christopher Willis irrigationtoday.org
Arkansas. He has worked the past 19 years informing agriculture producers of NRCS programs and assistance and highlighting the agency’s work.
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