Drip irrigation is the ultimate water miser, doling out water drop by drop to the base of plants, most commonly in orchard and vegetable crops. But research is underway to study another crop’s response to drip irrigation – rice, a row crop that typically sits partially submerged in several inches of water for part of the growing season.
The project – a collaboration among Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, Conaway (Calif.) Ranch, Lundberg Family Farms and Netafim USA – is the first time drip irrigation has been used on a U.S. rice crop, according to Kyriakos Tsakopoulos, president of the Conaway Preservation Group (owners of Conaway Ranch).
“This effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water in California if widely adopted,” he says.
The project seeks to see if subsurface drip irrigation can effectively grow rice via a series of pipes that deliver water directly to the plants’ root zone, according to Bryce Lundberg, vice president of agriculture for Lundberg Family Farms.
The subsurface drip irrigation pilot project is being tested on a 100-acre plot. Project participants all hope to see yield improvements, despite reducing overall water use. Tsakopoulos says farmers should take responsibility and make measures to conserve water where possible.
“We need to continue to conduct research and develop methods to use the water most efficiently for crops while also conserving critical wildlife resources,” he says.
Jonathan Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with San Fransico-based Bay Institute, told the Sacramento Bee in March that flooded rice fields have undeniable benefits to waterfowl and other area wildlife, but drip irrigation might end up being a savvy conservation move as well, protecting several fish species native to the Sacramento River.
“If drip irrigation in this pilot project is going to reduce demand on water and be able to keep rice farmers going and reduce impacts to critically endangered fish populations, then that sounds like a good thing,” he says.
California is the third-largest rice-producing state behind Arkansas and Louisiana, with 385,000 total acres planted in 2015.