Sustainability Report: Water Use and Water Quality

Two farmers wearing hip boots and ballcaps stand in flooded field pulling on metal gate
Arkansas rice farmers Ryan (left) and Mike Sullivan wade in for improved water conservation and quality
May 23, 2019
Part of the series highlighting the U.S. Rice Sustainability Report.  

ARLINGTON, VA -- Water is the stuff of life, and no one understands that better than U.S. rice farmers.  Water conservation and water quality have been at the forefront of our farmers’ sustainability efforts for decades, and techniques continue to evolve.  Using water smartly means saving money, growing better rice, and protecting the environment and rural communities.  The U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report shows just how much rice farmers have improved and streamlined water practices as stewards of the land.

Some people who don’t know any better may look at a flooded rice field and think it’s a waste of water.  What they don’t know is all the cutting-edge practices rice farmers are applying to their fields that save more water than ever before, reutilize recovered tailwater, and ensure that the water returning to the environment is safe and cleaner than before.  Smart water practices employed by U.S. rice farmers also reduce energy usage, decrease the amount of herbicides, and retain nutrients that otherwise would run off into streams and rivers.

“Why would a farmer want to waste anything?” said Arkansas rice farmer Ryan Sullivan, whose farm is part of a two-year study on irrigation water management practices.  “It costs money to pump every gallon of water, so we are conservative in order to stay profitable.”

The methods used by rice farmers to reduce initial water usage are many.  Multiple-inlet rice irrigation (MIRI) eliminates the need for water to flow from one levee to another, reducing total water use by 25 percent, and reducing overall water costs by 18 percent.  Combined with intermittent flooding, also known as alternate wetting and drying (AWD), water use drops by 32 percent.  Furrow irrigation, or row rice, is a practice where rice is produced as a partially flooded, partially upland crop that significantly reduces water requirements and reduces evaporation losses.  Precision land leveling facilitates surface drainage and efficiently distributes irrigation water.

But the water that leaves rice fields is just as important to our farmers as the water that goes into it.  Tailwater recovery systems allow farmers to recycle captured run-off water and either use it to irrigate their crop immediately, or keep it in a reservoir for later use.  This saves farmers money, reduces the burden on aquifers, and provides security in times of drought.  And in California, tailwater flows to downstream users and is reabsorbed back into the environment.

The rice plant is a natural filter, and water that leaves a rice field is cleaner than it was before.  Sediments and nutrients that don’t belong in the water supply are filtered out and retained.  Filter strips and riparian buffers keep these nutrients on the field where they belong.  Typical agriculture problems like erosion, sediment transport, and saline drainage waters are less of a problem for rice due to these measures.

“Now, we’re using less water in rice than soybeans, corn, or cotton,” said Arkansas rice farmer Jim Whitaker, who saved an estimated 4.3 billion gallons of water during the 2016 growing season using these conservation techniques.  “Rice is the most ecologically friendly crop we can plant, if we manage it properly.”

The rice industry is doing more than any other crop to advance sustainable water technologies.  For more details, data, and stories that illustrate how seriously rice farmers take water stewardship, check out the U.S. Rice Industry Sustainability Report.