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Success Story

Reducing Groundwater to Increase Sustainable Agriculture

Publish Date
Richard and Matt Morris

Sustainability in action

Arkansas’s row crop producers are using innovative methods to ensure their crops receive the proper amount of moisture throughout the growing season. While cropland in the Arkansas delta is abundant, many years water can be scarce.

Arkansas ranks third in the nation in the amount of irrigated acres. The primary source of water is groundwater from the Mississippi River Alluvial Aquifer. But, the aquifer is being depleted faster than the rate of recharge in the primary agricultural area for cultivated crops.

“Though there is a critical decline of groundwater in the aquifer beneath these increasingly irrigated acres, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) uses its programs and technical expertise to install systems that convert from groundwater use to surface water utilizing the state’s abundant annual rainfall,” said NRCS State Conservationist in Arkansas Mike Sullivan.

Arkansas’s largest industry is agriculture—adding around $16 billion to the state’s economy annually. The Natural State is first in rice, third in cotton and tenth in soybean production in the nation.

Through technical and financial assistance, NRCS is helping producers develop Irrigation Water Management Plans that address their needs and benefit resource concerns.

The Morris Farm, established in 1892 in Lonoke County, has the distinction of producing the first rice crop in Arkansas in 1902. The first irrigation well in the state was also dug on the farm. In the early 1980s, the Morris’ constructed a 60-acre reservoir containing approximately 600-acre-feet of water storage to help with their irrigation needs.

Now, Richard Morris, his son, daughter-in-law and daughter farm 1,320 acres primarily growing rice, corn and soybeans. And, thanks to the addition of a 17 acre reservoir, a 1,329-foot-long tailwater pit, land-leveling, pipe drops and underground pipelines installed through a 2016 NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contract, the farm is able to irrigate with 100 percent surface water. The farm gained 133-acre-feet of water storage through the reservoir and tailwater pit.

“We’ve recognized the need for a sustainable water source for years,” said Richard. “By converting our operation to 100 percent surface water, we’re able to ensure a consistent water supply, reduce pumping costs and increase productivity.”

The Morris’s will reduce their pumping costs by 90 percent compared to a similar system pumping groundwater in the area.

Other Arkansas producers are using EQIP to save water, improve water quality and reduce pumping costs through other irrigation water management practices.

Steve Stevens, a Desha County farmer, uses poly-pipe with holes sized to evenly distribute the water on every acre of his 4,300 acres of row crops. This computerized hole selection results in 25 percent less water used and tens of thousands of dollars saved in pumping cost every year. He has used EQIP funding to monitor the success of computerized hole selection as well as other conservation practices. Monitoring shows less than 10 percent of the water and nutrients applied runs off the field.

Robby Bevis, a Lonoke County farmer, has planted cover crops with financial assistance on his farm. This results in more organic matter in the soil, lower soil temperatures and higher water holding capacity. Bevis has reduced the amount of water used for irrigation by 25 to 30 percent.

Mark Isbell, of Isbell Family Farms in Lonoke County, uses alternative wetting and drying for growing his rice. This practice entails dropping the water level in the rice paddies to less than 1-inch deep before pumping the water back on the field. By doing this, the fields capture any rain that falls during the summer months—resulting in a savings of 25 to 40 percent of the normal water used, depending on the amount of summer rainfall. In addition to water savings and reduced pumping costs, he is also reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the rice fields.

“These producers prove there are several methods to reduce the dependence on groundwater and with a systems approach using various practices sustainability can be attained,” Sullivan said. “These producers are not only increasing their profitability, but protecting one of Arkansas’s most valuable natural resources.

“The problem is large. It requires an all-in approach, using multiple methods and techniques, to reduce or eliminate over use of groundwater and help achieve sustainable agriculture in the future,” Sullivan said.

To learn more about reducing groundwater dependency visit

Mike Hamilton, extension irrigation education area specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, instructs Lonoke Service Center soil conservationist Morgan Morrissett about poly- pipe hole placement at the Morris Farm.

Mike Hamilton, extension irrigation education area specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, instructs Lonoke Service Center soil conservationist Morgan Morrissett about poly-pipe hole placement at the Morris Farm.


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