Irrigation, in agriculture. the artificial application of water to land. Some land requires irrigation before it is possible to use it for any agricultural production. In other places, irrigation is primarily a means to supplement rainfall and serves to increase production. Some land, of course, does not need any irrigation. Although the practice may be used for nonagricultural purposes to improve the environment, this article is limited to irrigation in agricultural contexts.
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Irrigation and drainage improvements are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Often both may be required together to assure sustained high-level production of crops. For a discussion of the role of drainage practices in agriculture, see drainage.
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, including 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 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.
There are many different types of irrigation systems, depending on how the water is distributed throughout the field. Some common types of irrigation systems include:]
Water is distributed over and across the land by gravity, with no mechanical pump involved.
Water is distributed under low pressure, through a piped network, and applied to each plant.
A type of localized irrigation in which drops of water are delivered at or near the root of plants. In this type of irrigation, evaporation and runoff are minimized.
Water is distributed by overhead high-pressure sprinklers or guns from a central location in the field or sprinklers on moving platforms.
Water is distributed by a system of sprinklers that move on wheeled towers in a circular pattern. This system is common in flat areas of the United States.
Water is distributed through a series of pipes, each with a wheel and a set of sprinklers, which are rotated either by hand or with a purpose-built mechanism. The sprinklers move a certain distance across the field and then need to have the water hose reconnected for the next distance. This system tends to be less expensive but requires more labor than others.
Water is distributed across the land by raising the water table, through a system of pumping stations, canals, gates, and ditches. This type of irrigation is most effective in areas with high water tables.
Water is distributed across land through manual labor and watering cans. This system is very labor intensive.
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