Pipelines Save the Day

August 2012
D'Jeane Peters, Public Affairs

Photo of Mark Grubb on his cropland.
Mark Grubb runs a wheat and cattle operation near Conrad, MT.

Mark Grubb, a farmer near Conrad, Mont., was tired of paying for water he would never receive. His inefficient irrigation delivery system required him to inspect it several times per day to make sure his costly four center pivots and two wheel lines would keep running. The irrigation system cost thousands of dollars each year to operate and yet it was plagued by stops and starts. To reach the pivots, the water in the system traveled through miles of irrigation canals and irrigation pumps. Another problem Grubb faced was water quality. As the irrigation water flowed through the last couple miles of irrigation ditch, it accumulated an increasing amount of salt. This not only caused lower crop yields but also wreaked havoc on irrigation equipment.

Realizing this method was not cost effective or time efficient, Grubb contacted the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to find a possible solution to his problem. Grubb worked with NRCS soil conservationists and engineers to plan and design a new irrigation water delivery system that not only saved him time and improved his water quality, it also saved him money. The new system NRCS designed has made irrigating Grubb's farm cost-effective, time-efficient, and water conserving. He was also able to earn some financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to pay for part of the new system.

Grubb's original irrigation system required the irrigation water to travel through an extra 5 miles of canals, through a reservoir, and then use two pumps to get the water into the pivots. “To irrigate,” says Grubb, “it had to follow the ditch system. It took another day to get water to the field.” The reservoir used in the system had such high sodium content that three years ago it tested as unfit for irrigation. To Grubb’s favor, where the irrigation water canal entered his property to the location of his existing pump was 160 feet elevation difference.

To alleviate these concerns, NRCS engineers designed an irrigation system to put the elevation gain to work, thus the entire irrigation system is now powered by gravity. This system eliminated the need for canals and pumps. The new irrigation system needed to deliver enough water to feed 600 irrigated acres, which is about 4,500 gallons per minute. That would require a total of 11,600 feet of buried plastic irrigation pipe. The pipeline diameters were 18- and 15inch pipe. This new irrigation system also has a feature that Grubb really appreciates and that is the new canal water inlet structure. Designed by the Montana NRCS engineers, this newly designed structure allows all of the irrigation pipeline water to be screened for debris. That means the pipeline-clogging trash now flows right on by the pipe inlet. This saves Grubb countless hours of checking the canal pipeline inlet and no more shut downs. The new structure also serves as a head gate and water measuring device which the Pondera County Canal and Reservoir Co. appreciates.

The original system, says Grubb, cost him approximately $25,000 a year in energy costs to operate. Since his new system is gravity-fed, no pumping is needed to get the water to reach the pivots. Grubb is also saving time, as the original system required him to clean and check the filter screen at the pump several times per day. If the screen became clogged, the pumps would shut down and need to be primed and restarted. “Now, to start a pivot, all I need to do is open the valve,” says Grubb. The water savings has also made a huge impact on Grubb’s operation. “We now use a third, maybe even half, the water we used to,” says Grubb.

Photo shows Grubb's pivot-irrigation system.
Mark Grubb's pivot-irrigated wheat crop near Conrad, MT. 
Photo of new headgate on irrigation system.
The new headgate on the NRCS-installed gravity-fed irrigation system.