Fertile soil, flat to gently rolling land and long growing seasons make the Mississippi Delta a major producer of cotton, corn, sugar, rice and soybeans — crops that give root to an agrarian economy going back hundreds of years.
However, water demand for irrigation and declining aquifer levels make water conservation a major concern in this distinct region that takes in parts of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee.
With some 4 million acres of farm land — one of the largest contiguous farm belts in the United States — the Delta isn't immune to worries that water needs will outpace supply. In Mississippi, farmers are installing irrigation well meters so the state can monitor how much water is being pumped for agriculture. And Arkansas officials project a groundwater gap as large as 7 million acre-feet per year for 2050 if nothing is done.
Delta Plastics wants to be part of the solution. The Little Rock, Ark.-based company, which manufactures polyethylene irrigation tubes, or polytubes, is offering farmers free access to a web-based program that plots out the most efficient way to water furrowed fields.
Called Pipe Planner, this digital design tool allows growers to input information about crop row spacing, elevation and water well volumes and then get back an analysis of what kind of polytube is needed, where they should punch the irrigation holes, how they should vary the hole sizes, and how long it will take to uniformly water the field.
“Pipe Planner allows the field to get even water distribution. You don't have any wasted water or what is called tail water. It saves an average of 25 to 50 percent in terms of water consumption. It's dramatic,” Delta Plastics President Sean Whiteley said in a telephone interview.
In the pipeline
Pipe Planner took almost five years and “millions of dollars” to develop, he added, but the company is making it available at no charge to growers as part of the Delta Plastics H2O Initiative. If widely adopted, the initiative could meet its goal of reducing water usage by 20 percent by 2020.
“We're very excited about it,” Whiteley said. “We estimate if every irrigated acre in the Delta used Pipe Planner the growers in the region could save more than a trillion gallons of water per year. It's a huge, huge number.”
Growers also can save on the diesel fuel or electricity needed to power water pumps.
“That's $50 million to $100 million of energy costs they can eliminate by using Pipe Planner to make their irrigation more efficient,” Whiteley said.