» Pipe Planner key to cutting Delta irrigation levels by 20 percent
By TED CARTER
Name buzz for no-cost irrigation software Pipe Planner is likely be zero outside of Mississippi and neighboring Delta states, but it figures prominently in plans for sustaining imperiled agricultural water supplies in Delta regions.
With the web-based program, growers save water and energy through more-precise irrigation, says the H20 Initiative, a 4-year-old coalition of public and private entities focused on reducing irrigation water use across the Mississippi Delta by 20 percent by 2020.
Pipe Planner, advocates say, is a helping hand a depleted Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer sorely needs.
The technology behind Pipe Planner is old-school ingenuity mixed with high-tech data engineering. Used correctly, it can help farmers in Mississippi cut water and energy for irrigation by a quarter or more, says Delta Plastics, a Little Rock-based maker and world-wide supplier of poly piping. The company is also leader of the H20 Initiative.
“All of us are working together to prevent the overdraft of our groundwater system,” said Matt Lindsey, director of irrigation for Delta Plastics.
The initiative already claims 1 billion gallons of water saved in the portion of the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer that serves delta regions from Louisiana up to Missouri.
Delta Plastics’ Pipe Planner and the data engineering that went into setting hole configurations for poly piping are central to the H20 Initiative. The software will be available to growers at no cost for the foreseeable future.
There’s nothing random about hole placement in the polypipes programmed by Pipe Planner, said Lindsey.
It all started years ago by just looking at the holes and noticing some irrigation rows “discharged better than other rows,” Lindsey said.
So, they poked holes until they got it right, Lindsey added.
“The software tells how to configure the holes” based on flow rate, elevation of the polypipe and how it sits on the ground, he said.
The grower needs to measure well discharges. Pipe Planner takes it from there, using spatial data to control the pressure in the pipes and precise pipe-hole configurations to put the right amount of water in the right place at the right time. In the end, the last row of crops is supposed to get the same water as the first.
“It takes about 10 minutes to run a whole design on a given field,” Lindsey said. “As long as everything stays the same, you can follow that same hole-prescription” for years.
One benefit farmers especially appreciate is the labor savings from programmed irrigation adjustments, he said. “They don’t have to get up and readjust at midnight. What farmers really hate is going out to far flung fields and checking.”
Delta Plastics, Lindsey said, decided to make the software free to farmers because the company is a manufacturer, not a software company.
Besides, the goodwill and brand loyalty gained is a plus, he added.
Room to Grow
Delta Plastics has offered its free irrigation software since 2015 and counts nearly half of the Mississippi Delta’s growers. Adoption should be higher, though its user-growth has outpaced other regions, said Dr. Jason Krutz, director of the Mississippi Water Resources Institute at Mississippi State University and former executive director of the H20 Initiative.
He said he and other participants in the H20 Initiative are both surprised and disappointed by Pipe Planner’s adoption rate. The surprise is that the Delta achieved nearly 50 percent growth more quickly than any other region. The disappointment is that many more farms have yet to apply the technology, which works with any brand of polypipe.
Krutz said he expects that growers who use the software will increase as the software shows it cuts costs by around $10 an acre,” he said.
Generational change is expected to give the Initiative’s technology a boost as well, Krutz noted. “We are at that point where farms are transitioning to younger generations. They’re a little more tech savvy.”
Soil moisture sensors and surge valves are also critical elements of the H20 Initiative. The surge valve helps with delivery of water and soil sensors help determine moisture levels and the best tine to water, Krutz said.
Krutz, a former irrigation specialist at the Delta Research and Extension Center at Stoneville, said the aquifer is losing more than it is gaining from recharging. The imbalance is not unexpected in heavily agricultural regions such as the Delta, he said.
What worries Krutz most at the moment is something called a “Cone of Depression.” It’s materialized, he said, in the “center of our delta region somewhere around Tallahatchie County,” he said.
Groundwater levels at the top of the aquifer have declined beyond historic levels, according to Krutz. He said the fear is the top of the water level would fall below the screens inside the wells. When that happens, the cone is tapped and air is pulled instead of water, he said.
The fix is to put the screen deeper in the well, but you “can only go so deep,” he added, and noted the average is 170 feet from top to bottom.
While the aquifer is more depleted than ever, it has had sustained recharges, according to Krutz. “It’s not like we are at catastrophic levels. We’re not even close,” he said.
Pipe Planner could help ensure it stays that way, the web software’s advocates say.
Polypipe arrived on the market in the 1990s. Soon enough, irrigation researchers started poking holes in it. They discovered some configurations discharged along their crop rows better than others.
Earlier, growers used their “best judgment” in their water-placement designs. “A lot of family knowledge” came into play, Krutz said.
Today’s future is in the holes, he said, still marveling at the simplicity. “I just shake my head all over. We’re just talking about poking holes.”
Still, Krutz noted, “Low hanging technology can make a pretty profound impact.”
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