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Thirty-five Water Conservation Methods for

Agriculture, Farming, and Gardening.

Part 1.
Please note that this is the first of a special four-part series here at Big Picture Agriculture. One
post will go up each of the next four days which will list and describe methods for producing
more with less water use in farming.
A leading concern facing the future of agricultural production is the availability of water. It is
expected that climate change will cause more extreme climate events including droughts and floods
and shifts in plant growing zones. As populations grow, more efficient use of water in growing food
will be of key importance.
Today, some 2.8 billion people live in water-scarce areas, but by 2030, it is expected that about half
of the worlds population will live in water stressed areas.
Past overuse of fossil water from aquifers will make it necessary to improve the efficiency of
irrigation and rainfed agriculture methods to grow tomorrows food. The increasing competition for
water in urban areas and for energy uses will lessen what is now available for agriculture, estimated
to be 70 to 80 percent of global fresh water use. As other interests gain a share of the fresh water
supply, the production of food will need to increase at the same time that the water used to grow it
Agriculture is done using both rainfed and irrigation farming. About 80 percent of globally cultivated
land is done with rainfed farming, accounting for 60 percent of world food production. Using smart
methods to enhance efficient and creative water use in rainfed agriculture has the potential to
increase production. The majority of the worlds poor and hungry live on rainfed farms in South Asia
and sub-Saharan Africa, so techniques which can improve water use in these regions are very
valuable. While irrigation levels have declined since the 1970s for various reasons, irrigation has the
potential to expand in the future in parts of Africa.
Productivity of irrigated land is more than three times that of unirrigated land. Around 40 percent of
the worlds food is produced on the 20 percent of land which is irrigated. The monetary value of the
yield of irrigated crops is more than six times that of unirrigated crops because crops with higher
market values tend to be grown on irrigated land.
Many of the methods known to conserve water and use it efficiently have been practiced for
thousands of years in some very arid regions of the world with great success. The best systems
require little maintenance while yielding maximum results. The ability to add water during crucial
growth periods can greatly increase crop yields.

To follow, is a list of water saving techniques which will be helpful in growing more food with less
water. Because every parcel of land requires its own best unique solution, I hope readers find this
post both useful and inspirational. Please feel welcome to add other methods not included on this list,
in the comments below.

1. Drip, or Micro-Irrigation

Drip irrigation delivers water (and fertilizer) either on the soil surface or directly to the roots of plants
through systems of plastic tubing with small holes and other restrictive outlets. By distributing these
inputs slowly and regularly, drip irrigation conserves 50 to 70 percent more water than traditional
methods while increasing crop production by 20 to 90 percent. The water and fertilizer are also more
easily absorbed by the soil and plants, reducing the risks of erosion and nutrient depletion.

Usually operated by gravity, drip irrigation saves both the time and labor that would otherwise be
needed to water crops, leading to larger harvest yields. Small systems on timers can easily be set up
by the home gardener, too.
This technology must be innovated and tailored to the crop and conditions. For example, some
systems are now solar powered and tubing materials have changed. There are many styles of drip
inserts which can be incorporated into the hoses and soaker hose segments can also be used. Instead
of using plastic tubing, ceramic can be used as it is more porous.
Small stream diversions, water collection tanks, or holding ponds can be used to provide a gravity
water supply for drip irrigation systems. Hand or peddle powered pumps or elevated buckets can also
be used.
These micro-irrigation systems, while affordable, are less suitable for major rice growing areas or for
staple grain growing. They are more suitable for high value vegetable gardens. Care should be taken
to avoid the build-up of salts in drip-system soils.
Within the last two decades, the area irrigated using drip and other micro-irrigation methods has
increased more than six-fold, to over 10 million hectares. The adoption of drip irrigation in more
areas holds much hope for growing more food with less water.

2. Bottle Irrigation and Pitcher (Olla) Irrigation

Buried clay pot (olla) irrigation is an ancient technology that uses a logical idea. By burying a porous

clay pot up to its neck, and filling it with water, a gardener has a 70 percent efficient watering
system. Water weeps slowly out of the pot and moistens an area about one-half the diameter of the
olla. Since soil is not saturated, the environment created is very healthy for the plant roots, which
form a mat around the olla. (Many modern gardeners kill plants by overwatering.)
A perfect olla has a thick wall, is fired at a high temperature, has rough surfaces, and holds one quart
to two gallons of water. After burying the pot and filling it with water, the top can be covered with a
rock to keep it clean and prevent evaporation.
Depending upon the crop and the rainfall, filling the pots two to three times a week may be adequate.
To use an olla, place it in the middle of several plants so that the plants draw moisture from the center
and grow outward onto dry land. This uses the space and the water very efficiently. Smaller ollas may
be used to water containers or patio pots.
If the pots lose flow after many years of use, they can be soaked in vinegar to reopen pores. Always
use clean or settled water and dont add fertilizer so as not to clog the clays pores.
Here is a source from which to order ollas:
To the left is one of many possible designs to aid in using a recycled
bottle as a slow release pot or plant waterer. Wine bottles, plastic
bottles, and almost any bottle will work. Holes can be tapped into
plastic sides or lids, or commercial plastic spikes can be purchased
which the bottle can be inserted into. Or, a bottle can simply be filled
with water and inverted next to a plant into moistsoil. Here is the
source link for the wine bottle waterer: .

3. Zai Pits

Zai planting pits are hand dug holes about ten inches wide, ten inches deep, and three feet apart
(25cm x 25cm holes one meter apart). They are used to trap water and increase soil fertility,
especially in arid regions with degraded, crusty soils. The pits are planted with a mixture of crop
residues, manure, and seeds, and covered with a mulch of grass or leaves.

When digging the pits, the excavated soil is used to make a small ridge around the pit to help capture
The pits can be reused if silt and sand are removed annually.
This simple technique can increase the amount of crops that smallholder farmers produce by 50
percent after just three years.

Recommended video here.

4. Drought Tolerant Crops and Seeds

Grow the right crop for the growing region. Regions which suffer water shortages are wise to plant
crops which are more tolerant to drought. These include finger millet, pearl millet, Guinea millet,
cowpea, teff, lentils, amaranth, fonio, emmer, various sorghums, African rice, Ethiopian oats,

irregular barley, mung beans and many grasses. Ideally, researchers would be working with all of the
crops on this list to improve the seeds for our crop requirements of tomorrow.
For example, researchers have improved cassava varieties over the past four decades which can
increase yields two to four-fold over traditional varieties.
Traditional millets require little water and can grow in poor soils without any synthetic fertilizers.
Millet is a heat resistant crop which has high calcium and fiber content as well as essential amino
In addition, drought tolerant crop seeds are available both through biotechnology and from native
seed varieties. Examples of drought tolerant seeds available today include corn, rice, and cotton. Just
as importantly, there are flood resistant rice seeds available. Having the right, reliable, and quality
seeds in hand for a new planting season is of utmost importance.

5. System of Rice Intensification (SRI) or System of

Crop Intensification (SCI) or System of Root
Intensification (SRI)
Millions of smallholder farmers have found that by using SRI and SCI methods of farming,
they can get higher yields with fewer inputs through setting up an environment with optimal
conditions for the plant. The effect is to get crop plants to grow larger, healthier, longer-lived
root systems, accompanied by increases in the abundance, diversity and activity of soil
organisms. These organisms constitute a beneficial microbiome for plants that enhances
their growth and health.
These principles, applied to growing rice in systems for 30-some years, are being
successfully applied to growing vegetables, legumes, wheat, corn, finger millet, and
sugarcane. The methods use 25 to 40 percent less water, and make crops more resilient to
temperature and precipitation stresses. Crops can be productive with less irrigation water or
rainfall because SRI or SCI conditions enhance the capacity of soil systems to absorb and
provide water.

SRI methodology is based on four main principles

that interact in synergistic ways:
Establish healthy plants early and carefully,
nurturing their root potential.
Reduce plant populations, giving each plant
more room to grow above and below ground and
room to capture sunlight and obtain nutrients.
Enrich the soil with organic matter, keeping it
well-aerated to support better growth of roots and
more aerobic soil biota.
Apply water purposefully in ways that favor
plant-root and soil-microbial growth, avoiding flooded (anaerobic) soil conditions.

6. Ripper-Furrower Planting System

In northern Namibia, farmers are using a ripper-furrower to rip 60 cm (2 feet) deep and form

furrows which function to harvest rainfall. The crop seeds are planted into the rip lines with
fertilizer and manure. When it rains, the water is funneled by the furrows to the crop roots.

Tractors are used the first year to start the ripped furrow system. After the first year,
farmers plant crops directly into the rip lines using an animal drawn direct seeder.
This practice is being used to plant drought tolerant millet, sorghum, and maize.
Farmers using the system are encouraged to practice crop rotation with legumes.
These practices together lengthen the growing season and improve the soils
structure, fertility, and moisture retention. They improve crop growing in both
droughts and floods. Average maize yields have increased from 300 kg/hectare to
1.5 tonnes/hectare, or five-fold in Namibia
since using this system.
This method of rainwater harvesting
especially aids in regions where soil is dry,
solid, and crusty. Whereas the rain
previously ran off, now it soaks into the
ground right where it is needed to grow the

7. Acequias

The above photo is a wooden aqueduct near Las Trampas, New Mexico on the High
Road to Taos. The aqueduct spans a deep gorge at an approximate elevation of
8,000 feet above sea level.
This is an example of an acequia, which is a historical engineered canal that carries
snow runoff or river water to a distant field. Acequias are commonly ditches, and
need to be planned, maintained, and overseen by groups of cooperative farmers.
Acequia water law requires that all persons with irrigation rights participate in the
annual maintenance of the community ditch including the annual spring time ditch
Acequias originated in Spain and were built later in the Spanish-American colonies.

8. Subsurface Irrigation Systems

Below is a graphic from the Netafilm subsurface irrigation system.

Advantages of subsurface irrigation systems include:

water savings
improved crop yields
no surface evaporation
no soil and nutrient run-off
nutrients can be applied at the root
there is less disease and fewer weeds
it requires less labor
produces uniform moisture at the root zone
reduced amount of energy is required for pumping
Plus, they are especially suitable for hot, windy regions.
Disadvantages include the high initial cost requirement, clogging and leaking
problems, and potential rodent damage. Problems cant be seen since they are
below the ground. Maintenance requirements are chemical injections, an annual
clean-up flush, and draining the pipes before it freezes each fall.

A 2009 Colorado State University study estimated that a subsurface drip irrigation
system costs $1000 to $2000 per acre and lasts 12 to 15 years, or up to 20 with
good maintenance. CSU adds that if center pivots last 20 to 25 years, these must
last 10 to 15 years to be economically competitive.

9. Water Storage

In the photo above, an excavated water holding reservoir was dug to collect water
during heavy rains. It was built lower than the remaining field where some terracing
work was also done, so that gravity could do the collecting. A drip irrigation system
with some type of pump might be added, and the small pond can also be lined with
Holding ponds or small storage tanks on small farms can also be fed through canal
irrigation. They can collect the water when it is available to be used by the farmer
when needed or when it is a convenient time to irrigate.
There are many kinds of tanks: steel rimmed tanks, plastered concrete tanks,
cisterns which are covered storage tanks either above or below ground, and birkahs
which are open reservoirs. For both the cisterns and birkahs, channels, dykes, or
(stone) walls constructed as wings can be used to aid in collecting water for the
Holding ponds fed by canal systems are useful for center pivot irrigation, too.

10. Black Plastic Mulch, and Organic Mulches Can

Save 25 Percent in Water Requirements

Organic vegetable producers in drier, cooler climates such as ours on the front range
of Colorado like to use black polyethylene plastic film as mulch on vegetable row
crops for multiple reasons.
When drip irrigation is laid underneath the plastic film, it delivers water and fertilizer to the
plants and evaporation is reduced. But, because there is no surface evaporation of water, it
is easy to over-irrigate crops. For this reason, a moisture probe should be used to check
root zone moisture levels.
In addition to providing water conservation, this synthetic mulch controls weeds and warms
the soil, making for an earlier crop. The black plastic mulch can be covered with hay or
straw to protect crops from excessive heat later in the summer.

In addition to black plastic film which can only be

used one season, black woven landscape cloth
is often used, which can be reused up to seven
Organic mulches such as straw, hay, grass
clippings, pine needles, and leaves also
conserve moisture. These organic mulches add
organic matter to the soil after they decompose.
One needs to pay attention how different organic
mulches can change the soil chemistry, however.
Finally, green living mulches, or cover crops, can help to conserve moisture if the right cover
crop is used for the right agricultural crop given its soil and climate conditions.

11. Sand Dams

Sand dams were developed by the Romans in 400BC.

Experts agree that Africa is especially well-suited to benefit from this fairly simple concept.
One sand dam can provide clean drinking water and enough water for gardening and
farming for a thousand people, lasting several months after the rains have fallen.
As a rain water collection system, they create a life generating spring where there was none
before, by storing wet season water in sand, which filters the water and keeps it from
A hand pump can be installed which accesses the deeper, stored, clean water.
Fruit and other trees can be planted near the dams and grass can be added for erosion
To construct the dams, villagers line up to dig a deep trench which is filled with concrete and
the rainy season backfills the new wall with sand over several rainy seasons. These walls
might be 90 meters long and 2-4 meters high. Located across small rivers which stop
flowing in the dry season, the sand becomes about 40% saturated with water and can hold
2 to 10 million liters.
This technique has been used in India, Africa, and South America for the past fifty years,
but remains underutilized.
To learn more, watch this video.

12. Plastic Buckets for Starting Young Trees

A great time-saver for irrigating newly planted trees is to use recycled 5-gallon plastic
buckets. These are often discarded at construction sites. You first need to drill one or two
1/32 inch or smaller holes towards one side of the bottom of the bucket. Set it next to your
small tree and fill with water every 1 to 2 weeks. You may move it to the opposite side of the
tree each time you refill it.

Or, you can connect a small tube from the

bucket into the soil to slowly irrigate, as in
the photo above.
Gravity does the remainder of the work for
you. If you have a row of seedling trees for
a new windbreak, you can refill your water
buckets from a tractor water tank if you
have one. The idea may be adapted to
irrigate berry shrubs and tomatoes, too.

13. Efficiency through

Center Pivot Irrigation

As compared to the old days when center pivot irrigation lost an enormous amount
of water through evaporation by spraying the water high into the air during hot
weather, todays systems are much more efficient. This efficiency comes from putting
sprinkler heads, or nozzles on hose drops, as pictured above, to minimize water drift
and evaporation. (Often the hose drops are lower than in this photo.) The systems
can be customized with many available options. These newer Low Energy Precision
Application (LEPA) center-pivot systems also use less electricity.

The above diagram is the schematic for an organic vegetable farmers field here in
Boulder County, Colorado. This scheme is used in the center pivots electronic
control box to set the time, and thus, the amount of irrigation applied to each specific
vegetable crop. By planting the field of vegetables in a pie shape, each vegetables
irrigation requirement can be customized for maximum water use efficiency.

This is the holding pond which supplies the water for the center pivot irrigation. It is
fed from snow melt that is distributed through nearby surface ditch irrigation. In this
semi-arid region, these water holding ponds are extremely valuable to local farmers.
Soil sensors can be employed to monitor soil moisture levels for center pivot irrigation which
can report results directly to the owners computer. This helps to prevent overirrigating.

14. Rotational Grazing Systems

The above USDA photo is an example of a shared water tank for cattle in a four-paddock
rotational grazing system in Iowa. Although livestock can get the majority of their water from
lush forage which is 70 to 90 percent water, they still need to have a supply of drinking
water. (Cattle can require 15-20 gallons of water per day, yearlings 10-15 gallons, and
sheep 2-3 gallons per day.)
With good grazing management, decreased water run off and increased soil organic matter
keeps pastures more resistant to droughts. During hard rains, pastures can absorb water
better due to organic matter in the soils and better forage cover as compared to industrial
farm fields. Reduced erosion rates preserve these fertile soils with higher water holding
capacity for future crop production. The key is not to overgraze the land.
Pastures have reduced soil and fertilizer run off compared to cropped fields and barnyard
herds. The animals hooves help break up the soil surface allowing better water penetration
and their manure fertilizes the plants and makes healthy microbial life in the pasture soils.
The input costs for the farmer are low and he or she sells grass in the form of meat on the

15. Gravity Drip Bucket Irrigation Systems for

Vegetable Gardens

source: double in Kenya

Bucket gardens are a simple technology that is gaining a foothold for subsistence farmers in
Africa, India, and at least 150 other nations. Utilizing plastic buckets or larger containers,
and drip irrigation tape, these systems enhance food security.
Buckets need to be elevated on stands that are at least three feet above the ground on
the high end of the garden, if it is not flat. Beds should be prepared with compost or organic
material and manure and then leveled. The drip tape can then be set up, and with care, the
system should last 5-7 years.
Next, see one method of attaching drip lines to the bottom of a plastic bucket.

source: bucket detail from chaplin living waters

Below is a diagram of a system which is sold by Chaplin living waters.

source: chaplin living waters

This next photo shows an elaborate bucket drip irrigation set-up in Kenya.

source Kenya: green empire farms

For further instructions, you may visit the site Drip Bucket Irrigation.

16. Organic Farm Soils Require Less Water to Grow


In the Rodale Institutes 30 year farming systems trial, they found that organic outperforms
conventional in years of drought as shown in the photo above. Organic fields increased
groundwater recharge and reduced runoff as compared to industrial farming. The organic
farm fields had 15 to 20 percent higher water volumes percolating through their soils.
When rain falls, the organic soils absorb the water instead of running off the surface and
taking soil with it. During periods of drought, healthy crop roots can access the stored water
present in the organic field soils. And by practicing crop rotation, soil retains more water,
reducing erosion and the need for irrigation.
In conservation agriculture or natural farming systems, zero tillage, crop rotations, manure
fertilizer, cover crops, and residues help to protect the soil and increase organic matter.
During rains, healthy organic soils absorb water and store it better. Good soil structure with
macropores allows the water to go deep into the soil where it can be accessed by roots and
is less prone to evaporation.

17. Drought Tolerant Livestock Breeds

The Nelore cattle breed is of the Zebu species from India and has been raised extensively in
Brazil. It does better than most other cattle breeds in conditions of heat, poor range quality,
and drought. Its hallmark is the prominent hump behind its neck. Other breeds of the
drought tolerant zebu are found in Africa.
In the U.S., the Texas longhorn is gentle, provides
lean meat, and is heat and drought-tolerant.
Sheep are very drought tolerant, requiring as little
as two gallons of water per day. During the cooler
season they require little or no supplemental water
beyond their forage intake. Navajo-Churro Sheep
are a drought-resistant breed which is tolerant of
temperature extremes and can subsist on marginal
forage with minimal grain. The Dorper sheep (see
photo) is a hardy, popular breed in South Africa.
Originating in arid conditions, it is highly adaptable
to many environments. Dorpers have been popular
in the U.S. since 1995.
Free range chickens are also efficient meat producers requiring
little, but adequate water.

18. Change our Diets

To conserve water, diets should be regionally appropriate and in season. Water use is

embedded in our food processing, packaging, and distribution systems, so eating locally,
unprocessed food saves both water and energy. Some argue that meat consumption is an
extravagant use of water, but if a region has abundant grass and rainfall, like for example
New York state or Vermont, then grass fed livestock is a water efficient protein source from
either meat or milk.
Drought tolerant crops should be consumed in drier regions, such as dried beans, lentils,
wheat, millet, and squash. Rainfed or drip irrigated fruit and nut trees produce water efficient
food. Some tuber crops and root vegetables are also water efficient.
Much of todays food transportation system is extremely efficient, allowing for easy trade
from the regions that are best suited for growing certain crops. But we need to pay attention
to where food comes from when buying at the market, casting an important vote with each
dollar spent.
We can save water by taking care to reduce food waste on a personal level. Dont buy more
than you need, store it appropriately, and compost the waste to recycle it into future food.
Thankfully, there is an enormous amount of resilience and adaptability in the human diet.

19. No Biofuels Mandates, Please

Biofuel production competes with food production. In the energy-water-food nexus, the IEA
(International Energy Agency) predicts that biofuels production will attribute 30
percent of the new demand for water by 2035. It would create the second largest new
demand for water, next to coal. (Fracking requires less water than biofuels production.)
The IEA anticipates a 242 percent increase in water consumption for biofuels by 2035.
Ethanol and biodiesel now account for more than half of the water consumed for primary
fuel production while they only provide less than 3 percent of the energy used to fuel our
transportation fleet.

The IEA estimates that corn ethanol uses 4 to 560 gallons of water for every gallon of corn
ethanol produced, varying by region. This compares to gasoline which uses .25 to 4 gallons
of water per gallon of fuel produced. Furthermore, precious aquifer water should not be
permitted to provide irrigation for corn grown for fuel. According to one study, consumptive
water use for ethanol production in the U.S. increased 246 percent between 2005 and 2008
and has particularly gone up in the Ogallala Aquifer region. The GAO estimates the average
water consumed in corn ethanol production at 324 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, 88
percent from groundwater.

20. Recycle Wastewater

Wastewater can be recycled and reused for agriculture. Urban wastewater that is treated
adequately can be recycled into rivers where it can be reused downstream.
Nations which reclaim the highest percentage of their wastewater include Israel, Spain,
Australia, Japan, Middle Eastern nations, Mexico, Latin America, Caribbean, and the U.S.
states of Florida and California. Reclaimed water is used for agriculture and irrigation.
Costs for large scale treatment of wastewater are much higher than having available
freshwater, even for crops which are not directly consumed by humans. For urban
wastewater reuse, the agricultural production needs to be reasonably close to the city
providing the water source.
Untreated wastewater is the only option for irrigation in many poor farming regions.
Affordable treatment technologies need to become more available to these areas which
maximize benefits with the lowest possible risks. Unique and regionally appropriate
solutions should be used.

Domestic graywater (laundry, dishwashing and bathing water) can be collected and recycled
through a setup of wetlands and aquatic plants which purify it so that it can be used in the

21. Qanats

Qanats are old Persian water management systems which draw upon underground water
sources, often at the base of mountains. They allow for the creation of a living oasis in the
midst of deserts. They are made up of a series of well-like vertical shafts, connected by
gently sloping tunnels. Large amounts of water are brought to the surface without pumping
by using gravity. Qanats as a water source are nearly as reliable in dry years as in wet
years. Qanats allow water to be transported over long distances in hot dry climates with
minimal loss of water to evaporation. They are used to provide irrigation in hot, arid and
semi-arid climates and many are still in existence today, operating in regions from China
across to Morocco.
To learn more about the construction of Qanats and their history, I recommend this

22. Rain Water Harvesting and Rain Gardens

(Left) The city of Santa Rosa, California offers a rebate for each gallon of rainwater stored.
(Below) The city of Raleigh, North Carolina worked together with its fire department to set
up a rainwater collection and storage system that helps the fire department use less of the

drinking water supply.

Some gardeners set up rainwater collection systems which are used to water their vegetable
gardens, often employing them in drip irrigation plans.
In addition to harvesting rainwater from roofs, there are methods to harvest rainwater in the
soil. The goal is to prevent runoff by encouraging water infiltration into the soil, and then
minimizing evaporation. One way to do this is by planting a rain garden, which is a
collection of shrubs or native plants located in a depressed spot that collects runoff. These
collect up to a thirdmore water from roofs, sidewalks, driveways, and lawns that would
otherwise enter waterways. Urban rain gardens filter out pollutants to help keep local
streams cleaner.

Rainwater may be harvested on a small scale to grow fruit trees, water small livestock, or
support fish ponds. The collected water can be stored in small tanks above or below ground,
in drums, or in small reservoirs.
On a farm, in situ rain harvesting and filtering are accomplished through having buffer strips,
grassy areas, terraces, off-stream storage reservoirs, and natural wetland areas.

23. Canal or Ditch Irrigation

Canal irrigation is a surface flooding irrigation method, the most common type of irrigation in
the world. Because surface flooding accounts for most irrigation, it is very important to
develop and promote methods or technologies which improve the efficiency of canal

This is a method of transferring water from a water source to fields. Canals, ditches, basins,
furrows, borders, pipes, and surface flooding provide ways to move the water by gravity.
Surface flooding can lose more than 50 percent of the water used through evaporation and
runoff. Furthermore, soil salinity, loss of nutrients, and runoff pollution can occur. Laser
leveling of the land helps improve efficiency.
Seepage from canals or ditches can be reduced by reinforcement of the canal banks and by
sealing or lining the canals. Roughly 60 to 80 percent of the water that is lost in unlined
canals can be saved through hard-surface lining. Lined canals and ditches may use
concrete, concrete blocks, bricks or stone masonry, sand cement, compacted clay, or
membranes made of plastic or other
materials to line the bottom and sides.
Canal maintenance should be a priority.
Inspections are helpful, and keeping the
systems weed-free greatly improves
their efficiency.
(Note that the top photo, taken here in
Colorado, shows a concrete lined ditch
with siphon pipes to be placed in
furrows for irrigation. The photo on the
right, also taken here in Colorado,
shows a ditch lined with black plastic.)

24. Polyethylene or Aluminum Gated Pipe Irrigation

Gated Pipes made from aluminum or plastic can be used in the arid West instead of ditch
irrigation and they can also be used on laser leveled land. Gated pipes reduce evaporation
and leakage, saving 30 to 45 percent of water used, while reducing erosion. The gates can
be opened and closed, allowing for watering only the areas, or furrows selected.
The system is set up by delivering water into the pipe using a concrete box containing a tight
screen or filter which keeps debris out of the water entering the pipe. Pipes may range from
four inches to 15 inches in diameter. Every two feet, the pipe has a plastic slide, or gate
that can be opened or closed using an irrigating shovel.
This is a form of flood irrigation, or gravity irrigation. It is popular in the U.S. and Latin
America for growing corn, soybeans, fruits, nuts, vegetables, sugar cane, and pasture land.
The cost and operating expenses are comparatively low for this system of irrigation.

25. Half Moons, Bunds, and Terraces

Some methods within this category can conserve both water and soil while requiring little
capital investment. Terracing, contour bunds, infiltration pits, tillage, integration of tree crops,
and green manuring all help to increase water inflitration and storage in the soil.

Bunds: On land with slight or moderate slopes and light to medium weight soils, bunds can
be constructed to reduce rainwater runoff, gully formation, and soil loss. Bunds are raised
earthen barriers which must be constructed by machine or by hand. They require a
significant amount of labor and take a small amount of land out of production. They help
rainwater to percolate into the soil. Bunds are used in terraced rice farming to retain water in

the paddies.
Half Moons: By constructing half moon structures on slight slopes, rainwater is collected
and erosion is stopped. Like bunds, they are appropriate for lighter soils that form surface
crusts. They help enable the production of drought resistant crops like millet, where there is
little rainfall. Half moons can be used for forage crops in rangeland degraded areas, too.
Terraces: These serve as small dams on sloped farmland and prevent gully washing. While
expensive to construct they help preserve soil and water quality and grassy buffer strips

provide nesting habitat for wildlife.

26. Pumps for Irrigating

It wasnt until motorized pumps powered by fossil fuels were used to irrigate from
underground water sources, that aquifers and groundwater sources could be pumped

beyond natural replenishment rates. This has led to unsustainable drops in aquifer levels in
India, China, and the U.S.
But, there are simple, nonmotorized methods to
pump water from underground sustainably that
are immensely valuable to small farmers in
undeveloped regions of the world.
Treadle pumps: Bamboo (or metal) treadle
water pumps have enabled poor farmers in
places like Bangladesh to access groundwater
during the dry season. Treadle pumps draw
groundwater to the surface using a manually
powered suction system. They can be made
locally and there have been programs to supply
them in certain areas. Today, there are more than two million of these that have been
distributed world wide. They can be used to fill containers used for micro-irrigation or bucket
drip irrigation systems. These are viewed as a stepping stone between hand lifting water
and obtaining motorized pumps.
Hip Pumps: According to KickStart, this $30
pump which began selling in 2008 can irrigate
an acre or more. It can pull water from 7 meters
and push water an additional 14 meters above
the pump.These micro-irrigation pumps are
available in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Solar Pumps: Solar and wind energy can be

used to power pumps for irrigation as can small
biomass plants, and micro-hydroelectric plants.
Motorized Pumps: China has been exporting
around four million pumps annually, after
decreasing the weight and the cost of small
irrigation pumps. Now, more than 60 percent of
Indias irrigation is being done by smallholder
farmers pumping groundwater.

27. Collecting Fog or Mist

Some call it harvesting water from thin air. This ancient practice, evident in archaeology of
Israel and Egypt is being revived again today. By using nets strung across mountain passes,
or stretched on poles located in foggy areas, gravity collects clean potable water for local

residents. Water droplets attach to the netting and run down into gutters beneath the nets.
The collected water may be further collected into tubes, taking it to a lower village or point of
water storage. One square meter of netting can provide five liters of water per day.
The plastic netting is a coarse woven mesh, used to shade fruit trees. It is inexpensive and
readily available. Various collection methods can be constructed, to fit the specific setting.
In addition to gaining potable water for drinking, collecting water from fog can be used for
agriculture and starting trees for reforestation, too. Nets have been used to provide direct
irrigation to quinoa in South America.
The areas with the best climatic and geographic conditions for collecting seasonal fog
include some mountainous areas, the Atlantic coast of southern Africa and South Africa,
Oman, Sri Lanka, China, Nepal, Mexico, Kenya, Morocco, Yemen, Guatemala, Chile, Peru,
and Ecuador. In Chile, this method has been used for over 30 years.

28. Deficit Irrigation

In deficit irrigation, the goal is to obtain maximum crop water productivity rather than
maximum yield. By irrigating less than a crops optimal full requirement, you might reduce
the yield by 10%, but save 50% of the water. With supplemental irrigation to rainfed crops in
dry lands, a little irrigation is selectively applied during rainfall shortages and during the
drought-sensitive growth stages of a crop. (These important stages are the vegetative
stages and the late ripening period.)
The end goal is to maximize irrigation water productivity, even if it means some loss of
production. As a success story example, results from using deficit irrigation have been quite
dramatic for wheat production in Turkey.

29. Mycorrhiza Fungus in Soil Can Reduce Plant Water

Needs by 25 Percent

Mycorrhiza, which means root-fungus grows in healthy soils and functions symbiotically
with plants by enhancing the uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients. The fungus attaches
to plant roots, increasing the root surface area which comes in contact with the soil. It
excretes enzymes which allow it to dissolve soil nutrients, and extends the life of the root.
This fungus increases the drought tolerance of plants and can reduce water needs by 25
percent. It increases the fruit and flowering of plants while reducing the need for water and
fertilizer. It also enables plants to grow in salty or contaminated soils and increases the
temperature stress tolerance for plants. It helps protect plants from disease, and helps store
carbon in the soil. Mycorrhiza has the potential to bring poor and degraded lands back into
It is possible to encourage mycorrhiza growth in soils by adding compost to your garden
soil, by not using synthetic chemicals, using minimum tillage, rotating crops, and growing
cover crops. By cold composting, or mulching your garden with shredded leaves each fall,
you can promote optimal Mycorrhizal fungi growth. Or, it can be purchased and added
directly to sterile potting soils, or degraded soil.

30. Using Less Water to Grow Rice

Paddy rice consumes far more water than any other cereal crop, although much of this
water is recyled. It also is the staple grain for half the people of the world. Three-fourths of
the rice produced comes from irrigated fields, and irrigated rice uses up to 39 percent of
global water withdrawals for irrigation. It takes about 2,500 litres of water to produce 1kg of

Traditional rice varieties tend to have lower yields and longer crop cycles but they
require less fertilizer, use less expensive seeds, and are preferred by consumers,
bringing a higher price. Because of higher input costs and lower market values for
high-yield rice varieties, farmers often opt to plant traditional rice varieties instead.
Ecologists have labeled five categories of rice plants according to water needs as
being rainfed lowland, deep water, tidal wetland, rainfed upland and irrigated rice.
Researchers have been investigating improved ways of growing rice with less inputs
and/or water.
Below, are some ways found to reduce water use in rice growing.

1. System of Rice Intensification (SRI) (See #5 in this series.)

2. Alternate Wetting and Drying [AWD] lets fields fall dry for a number of days before
re-irrigating them, which can maintain yields with 15 to 30 percent of water savings.
In Bangladesh, the AWD technique reduced water consumption by 30 to 50 percent.
3. Aerobic Rice is grown in water-scarce regions, without ponded water and
saturated soil. It uses 50 percent less water, and produces 20-30 percent less yield.
These are high-yielding varieties that grow under non-flooded conditions in nonpuddled, unsaturated (aerobic) soil. They rely on irrigation water, greater fertilizer
application, and greater use of pesticides. The shorter growth cycle of these varieties
enables farmers to grow other crops (rice or other plants) after the rice crop is
4. New varieties like short-season rice significantly reduce water use. Rice produced
40 to 45 years ago required 160 days from seed to harvest, compared to 135 days
for short-season varieties which has reduced the amount of water needed by about
20 percent over the last 30 years.
5. Pioneered by China, hybrid rice a cross-bred robust variety has increased land
and yield productivity while reducing water use. It is taking China about 1,750 liters
of water to produce 1 kilogram of rice as compared to 3,500 liters in India.
6. Genetic modification might be able to improve water efficiency of rice by another
30 to 40 percent.
7. Good land management, using laser leveling of compact soil fields with channels
and dikes helps save water in California.
8. In Australia, rice grown with saturated soil culture used 32 percent less irrigation
water than conventional methods in wet and dry seasons.
9. ACIAR is supporting trials of permanent raised beds in mixed cropping systems
(ricewheat and other combinations) in India, Pakistan and China.
10. About 13 percent of global rice area is dryland rice. Yields are quite low and it is
mostly grown for subsistence. In Southeast Asia, most dryland rice is grown on

rolling or mountainous land. Some newer rainfed rice varieties can achieve yields
close to those of irrigated fields, however.
11. A newer variety of flood tolerant rice has also been shown to withstand drought
better. About 8 percent of the worlds rice is classified as flood prone.
Some of the above methods also reduce methane emissions from rice growing,
Finally, to achieve more crop per drop, wheat and crops that do not grow in flooded
areas have the potential to produce food with less water. A rice field takes 2 to 3
times more water than a wheat or corn field. So, it is possible that in the future wheat
might supply a growing share of the worlds staple grain.

31. Soil Moisture Sensors

Incorporating soil moisture sensors into an irrigation system is an important tool for
water conservation. It not only prevents over-watering, but saves unnecessary
pumping costs and helps prevent leaching of fertilizers.

By monitoring soil moisture conditions, yield increases can be dramatic through

careful water applications during the most critical plant growth stages.
By watering less, plant roots grow deeper and there is less disease.
Moisture sensors can be used for commodity crop farming, vegetable farming, or
The probes are made up of multiple soil moisture sensors. They range in price, with
the higher priced models generally more accurate.
Some center pivot irrigation systems combine soil moisture sensors with a computer
that controls the operation of the pivot.
The University of Nebraska now provides a Crop Water App for the iPhone and iPad
based on Watermark sensors from IRROMETER which are installed at depths of 1,
2 and 3 feet.

32. Good Drainage

Too much water is as great a problem as too little. Good drainage is important in
water management because poor drainage leads to soil degradation and salinity
which can greatly diminish the yield and quality of most crops. Drainage factors
include soil type, compaction, and topography.
Soil compaction reduces the amount of pore space in soils and results in soil that will
not drain quickly. This affects plant growth because plant roots require air. Most
plants cannot survive for too long under water or in damp soils. Poor drainage
causes diseases and root rot. It not only affects the returns to the producer but also
can result in increased runoff during heavy rainfall events, therefore increasing water
When trying to improve damaged land that is saline or waterlogged, moving soil,
installing drainage pipes, and mulching can help. Other methods of improving
drainage include good crop rotation practices, adding manure and compost to
improve macropores in the soil, and reduced tillage.
Chinampas: This farming system is thousands of years old from the Aztecs of
Mexicos lake country. Chinampas are long narrow patches of ground, called
floating gardens, bordered by canals on each side. Approximately 98 feet by 8 feet
(30 meters by 2.5 meters), they are man-made by building up earth during canal
excavation through stacking alternate layers
of canal muck and rotting vegetation.

33. Agroforestry
Agroforestry, or using trees as part of the
agricultural landscape, can improve water
and soil quality and reduce evaporation
rates. These biodiverse systems have
reduced nutrient and soil runoff, or erosion. The trees drop leaves and twigs which
improve soil quality so that rainwater infiltrates better. Many crops are shade tolerant.

The trees can be trimmed to allow more sun to reach the garden spaces and for use
for firewood.
One system of agroforestry mixes livestock with trees and forage. The animals
benefit from shade and the trees can provide nuts or timber or fruit.
Intercropping with trees can produce honey, fruits, nuts, maple syrup, medicinal
plants such as ginseng, and mushrooms.
As field windbreaks, trees help to control wind erosion, provide wildlife habitat,
control soil erosion, and protect livestock.
Although not meant to produce a large amount of a single crop, these systems can
provide good yields with a variety of outputs. By mixing trees, shrubs and seasonal
crops there is more resilience to insects, diseases, drought, and wind damage.

34. Reduce Food Waste

Food wasted is water wasted and so much more. More than 30 percent of the food
produced is lost or wasted. Food waste can be lessened through improvements in
every step of the supply chain storage, transportation, food processing, wholesale,
and retail. The consumer must learn to purchase and eat wisely, so as not to waste.
When processed food gets thrown away, all of the water, energy, and labor used to
process, transport, refrigerate, and distribute that food was wasted. When fresh
produce or meat is thrown away, everything that went into the production and
cooking of those foods was wasted.
Some waste in a food system is normal, and it can be put to good use as compost to
create rich soils for growing next years food. It would be great if all food that is not
consumed could be recycled into compost. The huge problem of obesity results in
the squandering of both food and health.
In the developing world, small, local storage silos can greatly reduce rot, waste, and
rodent damage to crops. Refrigeration, improved communication, and distribution
infrastructure advancements will also help.

35. Water Conservation Also Means Keeping Our

Water Clean and Uncontaminated

What good would it do to conserve water if the water that remains is contaminated?
We must embrace smart practices and have government regulations in place that
protect our water from becoming contaminated. Agriculture is guilty of water
contamination from unsustainable land overuse practices that result in the runoff of
fertilizers, manure, pesticides, soil, and herbicides.
Industrial agriculture runoff has contributed to the Dead Zones in various coastal
locations around the world. Here in the U.S., our Dead Zone is located in the Gulf of
Mexico and is a hypoxic water area the size of New Jersey. It results from
agricultural and municipal waste runoff that funnels into the Mississippi River.
Overuse of nitrogen fertilizer has contaminated large amounts of ground water in
regions such as Minnesota, where industrial agriculture is practiced. This has
resulted in the loss of safe drinking water from underground wells for the families
who live in these areas.
Poor farming practices that lead to soil erosion and harmful chemical runoffs not only
degrade the land, but contaminate streams, lakes, and rivers. By nurturing wetlands,

keeping waterways natural with buffered areas, incorporating grassy and woody
buffer strips into farmed land, and building terraces or contours on slopes, farmers
can help to keep their local water clean. By using methods which keep soil healthy
including organic farming, minimum tillage, rotational grazing, and crop rotations
soil absorbs and keeps water pure.