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Irrigation and Water Management: Protecting Your Natural Resource

NRCS can help farmers with irrigation water management strategies tailored to their farm’s specific needs. Conservation practices can also protect water quality in the surrounding ecosystem. Irrigation water management is the process of monitoring and managing the volume, frequency, and rate of water application according to seasonal crop needs, considering the soil intake and water holding capabilities in a planned, efficient manner. Soil moisture should be managed to obtain optimum yields without deep percolation losses or runoff.  

Water quantity. Irrigation water management plans combine conservation principles with efficiency, balancing the farm’s water needs with those of nature. Tools like drip irrigation, which provides water precisely where and when it’s needed, can achieve greater precision with flow meters and soil moisture sensors, preventing excessive water use, minimizing pumping costs and reducing labor. Farmers can also conserve water by increasing their soil’s water holding capacity and using conservation tillage to keep the ground covered, reducing water loss through runoff.

Water quality.  Enhancing soil structure, improving water infiltration, managing timing of irrigation water applications, and having better nutrient retention are practices that help maintain and protect water quality. Well-managed systems need water applications to match plant uptake needs, can benefit from slow-release forms of nutrients, and must prevent excessive soil erosion. NRCS-developed irrigation water management plans, nutrient management plans, cover crops, and buffers reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching, keep soil and nutrients in place, filter runoff water, and help to maintain or improve quality of groundwater and downstream surface water.

Available Resources

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Activity Plans (CAP). The EQIP offers financial assistance for payment of practices and conservation activities involving the development of plans appropriate for the eligible land. The conservation practice associated with plan development is known as a CAP. Other examples of water quality practices available through EQIP include the following.

Irrigation Water Management – Wisconsin Irrigation Scheduling Spreadsheet (WISS). Irrigation water management helps growers determine the effectiveness of irrigation practices. Wisconsin NRCS utilizes the WISS to complete the “Check-Book” method under Irrigation Water Management (CPS 449) as outlined in the 449-CPS-1 standard. NRCS works with the University of Wisconsin (UW), who hosts the spreadsheet on their website, to develop and update the WISS, so it meets our standards. The WISS assists growers in optimizing crop water use efficiency by tracking the root zone water inputs and outputs (water balance). Using WISS’s water balance predictions, along with root zone soil moisture monitoring, a grower can plan irrigation timing and amount to take maximum advantage of natural rainfall, while minimizing over-application of water resulting in leaching. USDA Service Centers can assist growers in using the spreadsheet and other tools to meet irrigation water management needs.  

Wisconsin Grower Successes

Glacial Lake Cranberries harvest Meet Mary Brazeau Brown, of Glacial Lake Cranberries, and learn how she partnered with NRCS through the EQIP to install irrigation pipeline, irrigation system sprinklers and complete irrigation water management to meet her farm’s goals in this feature success story.
Stauner and Stinebrink during packing Meet John Stauner, of James Lakes Farms, and learn why this organic operation partnered with NRCS through EQIP to complete an irrigation water management plan, and install a new irrigation system to meet his farm’s goals in this feature success story.

Contact Us

What to learn how you can protect water resources on your own farm or forestland? Contact your local USDA Service Center.