Are We Encouraging Farmers to Keep Flood Irrigating? Yes and Here’s Why!

Unlikely partnerships of agricultural landowners, conservationists, government officials and water managers are behind efforts to keep farmers flooding fields in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and California. Numerous IWJV partners recently spoke to the Capital Press about flood irrigating and how birds and people benefit from this agricultural practice.

The pursuit of water-efficient irrigation has had unintended consequences. Migratory wading birds feed in flood-irrigated fields, which have provided an artificial alternative to the natural marshes lost to river damming. In the west, aquifer levels have dropped in correlation with the disappearance of flood irrigation — historically a major source of incidental aquifer recharge.

Chris Colson from Ducks Unlimited and conservation organizations know that flood irrigation, with its leaky canals and standing water, helps recharge shrinking aquifers and provides migratory birds with a stopover on their annual pilgrimages between the Arctic and points south. Colson and his colleagues have been working to understand — and ultimately address — the reasons growers opt to stop flood irrigating.

Often, the problem is the cost of replacing dilapidated head gates or improving canals. Some producers say flood irrigation is simply too labor intensive.

“We’re working with some vendors to develop automated infrastructure, where they can sit in their truck and use their cell phone and open the valves (to flood irrigate),” Colson said.

Zola Ryan, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in Harney County, Oregon, says the NRCS goals of improving irrigation efficiency and preserving flood irrigation go hand-in-hand. Ryan explained efficient sprinklers are ideal for irrigators using groundwater, and watering where benefits of flooding aren’t as pronounced.

“There is a place and time for flood irrigation and a place and time for sprinkler irrigation,” Ryan said.

In Northern California, Ducks Unlimited regional biologist John Ranlett has tapped U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funds to help several ranches install pipelines to better deliver water for flood irrigation. Ranlett has also overseen the replacements of weirs — shallow dams across rivers that regulate water levels entering flood-irrigation canals.

“If their infrastructure starts to fail, they’re going to lose the ability to irrigate,” Ranlett said. “Then all of a sudden you lose habitat.”

Read the full article by the Capital Press here: