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LSU AgCenter helping improve irrigation

LSU AgCenter faculty members are looking for ways Louisiana farmers can change their irrigation practices to save water and reduce production costs.

As part of those efforts, a group of agents from the LSU AgCenter visited central Arkansas in early June to see how that state's rice farmers are trying new irrigation methods that involve surface water rather than water from wells.

The group was led by Bill Branch, an LSU AgCenter water resource specialist. Branch said the trip was used to show agents how Arkansas farmers are using polyethylene tubing and irrigation water districts to help manage irrigation on their fields.

“The multiple-inlet delivery of irrigation water involves the use of polyethylene tubing for the deliver of irrigation water to each part of a rice field at the same time,” Branch said. “The method traditionally used in Louisiana delivers water to the highest part of the field first and then lets the water run down to the lowest part of the field.

“The multiple-inlet method reduces labor and water requirements — and is important to Arkansas rice growers who have limited water supplies.”

Furrow irrigation of rice is another method looked at, Branch said. This method involves using polyethylene tubing to furrow irrigate the rice. Small holes are punched in the tubing at 16-inch intervals to let water run down the slope between the rice drills. When the field is wet, the water is turned off, he said. When the soil begins to dry, the water is turned back on again.

“Water use and input costs are cut significantly using this method, but some yield reduction occurs,” Branch said.

In addition to the tubing, the agents also saw new water storage reservoirs and surface water collection systems being installed on farms.

“Arkansas farmers depend on groundwater for most of their rice irrigation water,” Branch said. “New wells may cost as much as $150,000 and require expensive maintenance after 10 to 15 years of use.

“So many growers are installing surface water collection systems to reduce the amount of groundwater they have to pump. This can reduce their water pumping costs by 50 percent to 75 percent.”

The surface water pumps also are much less expensive to install and maintain, Branch said.

Phillip A. Sims, a county Extension agent for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, said farmers have benefited from using surface water.

“Using surface water is also good for the environment,” Sims said. “Using surface water allows aquifers to recharge, and everyone benefits.”

The Louisiana agents also visited the Plum Bayou Irrigation Project. This project involves an irrigation system that diverts water from the Arkansas River into Plum Bayou. Sixteen farmers on 14,250 acres in Lonoke, Jefferson and Pulaski counties in Arkansas benefit from the water district.

“This is the greatest thing that has happened to this farming community,” said Luchan Walls, a 69-year-old farmer. “We had a lot of doubters when this first came about, but it's proven beneficial for everyone.”

The project has gained worldwide attention, bringing in people from Australia and Japan who wanted to look at it, Walls said.

According to facts about the project, a two-part fee schedule has been set up for members of the water district.

The first part involves a minimum yearly fee, which is $2.33 per irrigated acre. The second part is a fee of $2.80 per acre-foot of water used.

Figures supplied by the water district show estimated yearly cost per acre to operate and maintain a well in the Plum Bayou area is $58.54 per year, Walls said. But farmers pumping water from Plum Bayou can expect to pay $28.78 per year, he said.

“This is almost a two-to-one ratio,” Walls said. “Looking at this, it's cheaper to use water from the Plum Bayou Project than to have our own wells.”

A. Denise Coolman writes for the LSU AgCenter (318-366-1477 or

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