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NMSU researchers address water sustainability for viable farming

With a persistent drought, New Mexico is in need of effective water conservation methods that allow farming and ranching to be viable.

Manoj Shukla, professor of Environmental soil physics, shown here with a drip irrigation system for chile, has been part of the microirrigation research team for more than 10 years. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

New Mexico State University has long been an advocate of sustainability, serving the needs of its community, especially growers and ranchers in the state.

This year, NMSU researchers were part of group receiving regional and national recognition for a sustainability project that aims to conserve water.

The W-2128 Microirrigation for Sustainable Water Use project, which was created in 1972, is a multistate project with the collaboration of 18 other universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratories, addressing water challenges in New Mexico, California, Florida and Puerto Rico, among others.

“The main idea, when it comes to collaborating with other universities, is to research how we can improve water application or water use efficiency overall,” said Manoj Shukla, professor of Environmental Soil Physics, who has been part of the research team for about 10 years. “For example, we’ll come together and review with each other what techniques are being used or the use of sensor-based technology for scheduling irrigation under different soils.”

Although the concept of microirrigation has existed since World War II, when advances in plastic piping became part of agriculture, it was not widely adopted until recently.

“A lot of farmers understood the advantages of having efficient irrigation systems, they just didn’t think the system was effective enough at that time,” said Steve Loring, NMSU associate director of the Agricultural Experiment Station and administrative adviser representing the Western Agricultural Experiment Station directors.

This system delivers water to farmland in smaller and more efficient ways above or below the soil surface through emitters spaced along a water line, and can have environmental, economic and societal impacts given that conventional irrigation methods that implement large amounts of water have the potential to lose a higher volume due to runoff, wind or evaporation.

“Because of the group that has been working on this for the last 25 years, we have made huge advances in the technology, it costs a lot less and so there is more adoption of this system,” Loring added.

NMSU’s participation ranged from testing different models of drip tubing to developing a 2D model for scheduling microirrigation for shallow-rooted plants, among many other soil and irrigation experiments.

“This is a regional project and New Mexico State is participating in this project that has a benefit for New Mexico, but it also has an impact on people in other states like Wyoming, California, Oregon and Hawaii, among many others,” Loring said.

According to the research conducted by NMSU and other universities, the microirrigation system can be adapted to different crops, soils, climates and particular farming needs.

According to the research, microirrigation technology was “critical in mitigating Texas’ record breaking drought in 2011,” and it has helped farmers in Idaho save 10 percent on labor and water pumping costs by following recommendations to measure soil water levels daily at multiple depths.

“This all comes back to collaboration,” Shukla said. “We, soil physicists, work with soil moisture content sensors while horticulturists work with plant stress measurement sensors, so we can cooperate with other and therefore help farmers and growers in different parts of the country.”

Shukla added there are many benefits to the microirrigation system, including improving crop yields and quality because the system can also be used to add chemicals. Microirrigation reduces the amount of chemicals applied that have the potential to reach groundwater or pollute streams and lakes.

In addition, research has shown that microirrigation systems promote the use of non-potable water use, which saves freshwater for human consumption.

Microirrigation conserves water in ways that are needed to conserve water and produce enough crops to feed people, which is a growing problem around the world.