Irrigation | Definition, History, Systems, & Facts (2024)

Modern irrigation system planning and construction

Water supply

The first consideration in planning an irrigation project is developing a water supply. Water supplies may be classified as surface or subsurface. Though both surface and subsurface water come from precipitation such as rain or snow, it is far more difficult to determine the origin of subsurface water.

In planning a surface water supply, extensive studies must be made of the flow in the stream or river that will be used. If the streamflow has been measured regularly over a long period, including times of drought and flood, the studies are greatly simplified. From streamflow data, determinations can be made of the minimum, maximum, average daily, and average monthly flows; the size of dams, spillways, and the downstream channel; and the seasonal and carryover storage needed. If adequate streamflow data are not available, the streamflow may be estimated from rain and snow data or from flow data from nearby streams that have similar climatic and physiographic conditions.

The quality, as well as the quantity, of surface water is a factor. The two most important considerations are the amount of silt carried and the kind and amount of salts dissolved in the water. If the silt content is high, sediment will be deposited in the reservoir, increasing maintenance costs and decreasing useful life periods. If the salt concentration is high, it may damage crops or accumulate in the soil and eventually render it unproductive.

Subsurface sources of water must be as carefully investigated as surface sources. In general, less is known about subsurface supplies of water than about surface supplies, so, therefore, subsurface supplies are harder to investigate. Engineers planning a project need to know the extent of the basic geological source of water (the aquifer), as well as the amount the water level is lowered by pumping and the rate of recharge of the aquifer. Often the only way for the engineer to obtain these data reliably is to drill test wells and make on-site measurements. Ideally, a project is planned so as not to use more subsurface water than is recharged. Otherwise, the water is said to be “mined,” meaning that it is being used up as a natural resource and its use is considered unsustainable.

Two sources of water not often thought of by the layperson are dew and sewage or wastewater. In certain parts of the world, Israel and part of Australia, for example, where atmospheric conditions are right, sufficient dew may be trapped at night to provide water for irrigation. Elsewhere the supply of wastewater from some industries and municipalities is sufficient to irrigate relatively small acreages. Recently, due to greater emphasis on purer water in streams, there has been increased interest in this latter practice.

In some countries (Egypt for example) sewage is a valuable source of water. In others, such as the United States, irrigation is looked upon as a means of disposing of sewer water as a final step in the wastewater treatment process. Unless the water contains unusual chemical salts, such as sodium, it is generally of satisfactory quality for agricultural irrigation. Where the practice is used primarily as a means of disposal, large areas are involved and the choice of crop is critical. Usually only grass or trees can withstand the year-round applications.

Before a water supply can be assured, the right to it must be determined. Countries and states have widely varying laws and customs that determine ownership of water. If the development of a water supply is for a single purpose, then the determination of ownership may be relatively simple; but if the development is multipurpose, as most modern developments are, ownership may be difficult to determine, and agreements must be worked out among countries, states, municipalities, and private owners.

The area that can be irrigated by a water supply depends on the weather, the type of crop grown, and the soil. Numerous methods have been developed to evaluate these factors and predict average annual volume of rainfall needed. Some representative annual amounts of rainfall needed for cropland in the western United States are 305 to 760 mm (12 to 30 inches) for cereal grains and 610 to 1,525 mm (24 to 60 inches) for forage. In the Near East, cotton needs about 915 mm (36 inches), whereas rice may require two to three times that amount. In humid regions of the United States, where irrigation supplements rainfall, grain crops may require 150 to 230 mm (6 to 9 inches) of water. In addition to satisfying the needs of the crop, allowances must be made for water lost directly to evaporation and during transport to the fields.

Transport systems

The type of transport system used for an irrigation project is often determined by the source of the water supply. If a surface water supply is used, a large canal or pipeline system is usually required to carry the water to the farms because the reservoir is likely to be distant from the point of use. If subsurface water drawn from wells is used, a much smaller transport system is needed, though canals or pipelines may be used. The transport system will depend as far as possible on gravity flow, supplemented if necessary by pumping. From the mains, water flows into branches, or laterals, and finally to distributors that serve groups of farms. Many auxiliary structures are required, including weirs (flow-diversion dams), sluices, and other types of dams. Canals are normally lined with concrete to prevent seepage losses, control weed growth, eliminate erosion hazards, and reduce maintenance. The most common type of concrete canal construction is by slip forming. In this type of construction, the canal is excavated to the exact cross section desired and the concrete placed on the earth sides and bottom.

Pipelines may be constructed of many types of material. The larger lines are usually concrete whereas laterals may be concrete, cement–asbestos, rigid plastic, aluminum, or steel. Although pipelines are more costly than open conduits, they do not require land after construction, suffer little evaporation loss, and are not troubled by algae growth.

Water application

After water reaches the farm it may be applied by surface, subsurface, or sprinkler irrigation methods. Surface irrigation is normally used only where the land has been graded so that uniform slopes exist. Land grading is not necessary for other methods. Each method includes several variations, only the more common of which are considered here.

Surface irrigation systems are usually classed as either flood or furrow systems. In the flood system, water is applied at the edge of a field and allowed to move over the entire surface to the opposite side of the field. Grain and forage crops are quite often irrigated by flood techniques. The furrow system is used for row crops such as corn (maize), cotton, sugar beets, and potatoes. Furrows are plowed between crop rows and the water is run in the furrows. In either type of surface irrigation systems, waste-water ditches at the lower edge of the fields permit excess water to be removed for use elsewhere and to prevent waterlogging.

Subirrigation is a less common method. An impermeable layer must be located below, but near, the root zone of the crop so that water is trapped in the root zone. If this condition exists, water is applied to the soil through tile drains or ditches.

Sprinklers have been used increasingly to irrigate agricultural land. Little or no preparation is needed, application rates can be controlled, and the system may be used for frost protection and the application of chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Sprinklers range from those that apply water in the form of a mist to those that apply an inch or more per hour.

Irrigation | Definition, History, Systems, & Facts (2024)
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