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Know the West

Time to embrace drip irrigation

  Dear HCN,

In the West, water is a pervasive issue, and it is a common theme among HCN articles. "Bringing back the bosque," and "Will Salt Sink an Agricultural Empire?" (HCN, 11/19/01: Bringing back the bosque) touch this subject.

These articles leave one believing that the battle between agriculture and ecological water could never be resolved. It is a power struggle and winner takes all. I cannot help to wonder: Hasn't anyone heard of drip irrigation? These agricultural lands can be just as productive without "flooding" the land with irrigation water. Drip irrigation uses only a fraction of the water that traditional irrigation does. It leaves most of the water where it belongs; in the rivers. Less water means less salt. Less water makes desalination economically feasible, if it were still necessary. Drip irrigation produces little or no drain-water, and thus no selenium problem.

Some will argue that at $500 to $1,500 per acre, its cost is too high. This can only be true in relation to the cost of water. Drip irrigation is already used extensively in Arizona and Southern California, where water is decidedly more precious. When the full extent of ecological impacts are taken into account, the investment in drip-irrigation systems is undoubtedly quite small.

Conservation is the "easy" answer to most environmental issues. With water in the West, it is the only answer. The rivers need to run free for their own ecological health as well as the coastal waters that they drain (or drained) into. River deltas (a.k.a. estuaries) provide the most important spawning habitat for ocean fishes. Is there any wonder that fish stocks are so depleted?

There is an answer to the water wars of the West. It does not involve bulldozers and ditches and dams, the goliath machinery of the 20th century. It involves treading lightly with the smaller, lighter, faster technology of the 21st. It is high-time to embrace drip irrigation, before it is too late.

Michael Dray
Boulder, Colorado