Collaborative partnerships focus on cost-effective solution to allow agriculture to thrive while conserving Colorado River water

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Prolonged drought and the effects of climate change are seriously impacting Arizona’s water resources, as demonstrated by the Tier 1 Colorado River shortage we are about to enter in 2022.

The reductions we will be taking next year will most severely impact central Arizona agriculture. CAP, along with partners in Arizona and across the Colorado River Basin, has been researching alternatives with the aim of saving water and sustaining irrigated agricultural productivity.

Thanks to a low-cost, innovative irrigation technology from an Israel-based company called N-Drip, a solution may be at hand in the form of low-pressure, gravity-powered micro-irrigation. Essentially, this involves little more than plastic tubing with emitters every three feet to deliver water to crops. The system does not require any new delivery infrastructure, pumping requirements, filtration systems or power supply. The system is coupled with real-time soil moisture management and crop management technology.

CAP has been funding pilot projects since 2020 with a goal of testing cost-effective, accessible water savings technology that would maintain agricultural productivity – using less water and maintaining crop yield.

The first study involved the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT). The N-Drip technology was studied on one sorghum field, adjacent to another using traditional flood irrigation just outside of Parker, Ariz. The University of Arizona monitored soil moisture and evaluated soil health and crop productivity. In these studies, the N-Drip fields were shown to have 52% lower water deliveries with the same or slightly higher crop yields. Further, tribal representatives began to see a future that could allow them to maintain their cultural heritage of farming, while protecting the long-term future of the Colorado River.

Leveraging this success and applying lessons learned along the way, pilot studies are continuing with CRIT and expanding to look at cotton farming at the William K. Perry Farm in Maricopa County’s Harquahala Valley Irrigation District. Initial results there project a 40% water savings and a 15% increase in yield.

Next year, CAP will be working with partners across the Upper and Lower Colorado River Basin to further this research. CAP, along with Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Denver Water, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, will each contribute $60,000 for a total investment of $300,000 to study a multi-year alfalfa pilot at CRIT and the Bill Perry Farm. Ultimately, this partnership could expand to further study citrus and investigate possibilities at other sites, potentially in Mexico and the Upper Colorado River Basin states.

Ultimately, the hope is to develop win-win projects using new technology to sustain two resources vital to the Colorado River Basin – water and agriculture.