The Capitol Press, which covers agriculture issues in the western United States, recently published a lengthy piece chronicling Ducks Unlimited’s work with farmers to preserve flood irrigation in both Idaho and Nevada, which ultimately benefits both the land and waterfowl.
Over the last 50 years, in an effort to curb water consumption, many farmers in the West have moved away from flood irrigation when it comes to delivering water to their their fields, installing more efficient sprinkler systems.
Farmers have relied on flood irrigation — using gravity to spread surface water across fields — for thousands of years.
Since the late 1960s, however, growers have been moving away from flooding in favor of more efficient sprinklers. On average, 120,000 acres in 11 Western states were converted from flood irrigation to sprinklers annually between 1995 to 2010, according to a study of U.S. Geological Survey water-use data.
And while the conservation and efficient use of valuable water has been an overall positive, there have been major repercussions for waterfowl and the land itself.
But the pursuit of efficiency 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. And Western aquifer levels have dropped in correlation with the disappearance of flood irrigation — historically a major source of incidental aquifer recharge.
Ducks Unlimited has long championed the multi-benefits of flooded fields and is working with farmers across the county to improve and rebuild their flood-irrigation infrastructure so that the water is used in an efficient manner. It’s a win-win for all parties.
Lake County rancher Joe Villagrana will finish NRCS-funded improvements to retain flood-irrigation later this month. But he’s been working with partners to upgrade his flood-irrigation infrastructure for most of a decade, initially with help from Ducks Unlimited. Villagrana said he’ll soon have the ability to evenly flood irrigate 2,200 acres of meadow grass pasture, and both grass production and water fowl numbers have already risen dramatically on his land.
Without the help, “I probably wouldn’t have done near what I’ve done, and I would have done it over 20 years,” Villagrana 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.”
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