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A torpedo-shaped instrument is towed beneath a helicopter to gain a more-accurate reading of the aquifer level.

Mapping the Delta’s water — Aquifer the lifebood of irrigation for crops

KAY WHITTINGTON

By NASH NUNNERY

There’s no disputing that water is the lifeblood of agriculture in the Mississippi Delta and around the state.

In fact, 92 percent of the water footprint in the United States goes to agriculture production, according to the latest government figures. In the Mississippi Delta, home to arguably the world’s richest soil, farmers worry as much about their irrigation wells as the status of their crops.

For Washington County rice producer Marvin Cochran, it’s all about water.

“To the lay person, most think we rely on rain but you won’t be farming long if you don’t have water wells,” he said. “It takes 299 gallons of water to produce one pound of rice – without groundwater from the aquifer, we wouldn’t be in business very long.”

In early March, the United States Geological Survey collected data about the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer in an area just north of Greenwood. Using a specialized torpedo-shaped instrument towed beneath a low-flying helicopter, USGS officials hope to better understand the properties of geologic layers beneath the land surface.

The shallow alluvial aquifer supplies most of the water for irrigation and aquaculture in the Delta. Water levels have declined as demand has increased since the 1980s. Led by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the Delta Sustainable Water Resources Task Force was formed to develop strategies to make sure farmers have adequate agricultural water resources for the future.

Members of the Task Force include the Delta Council, Delta F.A.R.M., Mississippi Farm Bureau, and the Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission.

Kay Whittington, MDEQ’s Office of Land and Water Resources manager, says the data collected from the USGS project will help improve the accuracy of the water availability model.

“The data will allow the USGS to construct a three-dimensional map showing the relative capacity of the sub-surface materials at different locations and depths to transmit water,” she said. “It will also give the scientists a much better understanding of where and at what depth the clays, silts, sands and gravels are located in the aquifer.”

The Mississippi River Valley Aquifer is the geologic formation beginning at the land surface in the Delta and going down varying depths – between 100 to 200 feet. The pore spaces in the sands and gravel store and transmit water. The USGS utilizes the electromagnetic torpedo-shaped instrument suspended below the helicopter to transmit radio waves into the ground and measure the response to the radio waves of the different geologic materials.

“In addition to promoting conservation and efficient water use, the Task Force is evaluating all potential alternatives,” Whittington said. “One of those alternatives is a pilot project to pump groundwater from a well to be drilled near the Tallahatchie River, pipe the water two miles to the west and reinject it to recharge the aquifer.

“The helicopter-based data collection is in the same area as the pilot project and will help in design and evaluation of the project.”

Improving irrigation efficiency and water conservation are the keys to ensuring there is adequate water for the Delta farming community, said Whittington.

“Since 2011, groundwater permits in the Delta issued by MDEQ have required implementation of these practices,” she said. “We instituted a voluntary metering program in 2014, under which 10 percent of all wells in the alluvial aquifer are metered to measure the amount of water used.

“Farmers have been supportive of the Task Force, and we hope to use the information resulting from the data collection to better understand how to manage the Delta’s water resources.”

Cochran, a third-generation Delta planter, hopes to see the aquifer recharged so he can continue to produce quality rice without worry.

“Having an adequate groundwater supply is the most important factor in operating a farm these days,” he said.

“That is without question.”

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