USGS - science for a changing world

The USGS Water Science School

Irrigation Water Use: Surface irrigation

Irrigation water use: Surfaceirrigation.Probably one of the oldest methods of irrigating fields is surface irrigation (also known as flood or furrow irrigation), where farmers flow water down small trenches running through their crops. Humans' first invention after learning how to grow plants from seeds was probably a bucket. Ancient people must have been strong from having to haul buckets full of water to pour on their first plants. For most of human history, people did not have mechanized spray irrigation systems to apply water to crop fields. It was more like, "Hey, Big Guy, take this reed bucket and go down to the river and fill 'er up."

Picture of flood or surface irrigation.Surface irrigation is still used today throughout the world,especially in less-developed areas where mechanical techniques are not available. In fact, in the United States in 2000, about 29.4 million acres were irrigated by flood irrigation as compared to about 28.3 million acres irrigated by spray irrigation. Flood irrigation is not the most efficient irrigation method, but it is cheap and low-tech. On the one hand, less water is lost to evaporation than in spray irrigation, but on the other hand, more water can be lost from runoff at the edges of the fields.

Here are some more-efficient surface-irrigation techniques that farmers use:

  1. Leveling of fields: Flood irrigation uses gravity to transport water, and, since water flows downhill, it will miss a part of the field that is on a hill, even a small hill. Farmers are using leveling equipment, some of which is guided by a laser beam, to scrape a field flat before planting. That allows water to flow evenly throughout the fields. (Actually, this method of levelling a field is also used to build flat tennis courts).
  2. Surge flooding: Traditional flooding involved just releasing water onto a field. In using surge flooding, water is released at prearranged intervals, which reduces unwanted runoff.
  3. Capture and reuse of runoff : A large amount of flood-irrigation water is wasted because it runs off the edges and back of the fields. Farmers can capture the runoff in ponds and pump it back up to the front of the field where it is reused for the next cycle of irrigation.

Surface irrigation water use in the United States

Chart showing irrigated acres, in thousands,  in 2000 for each type of irrigation. Sprinker: 28,300, micro: 4,180, surface: 29,400.Irrigation is one of the major uses of water throughout the world. In the United States in year 2000, irrigation withdrawals were an estimated 137,000 million gallons per day (Mgal/d), or 153,000 thousand acre-feet per year. About 61,900 thousand acres were irrigated in 2000. Of this total acreage, about 28,300 thousand acres with microirrigation systems. The average application rate was 2.48 acre-feet per acre for the United States.

 Data table of irrigation water use, by State, in the United States in year 2000.

Realted topics:

Irrigation water use | Irrigation techniques | Irrigation methods
Irrigation use, 2000: Data table | Map
Irrigation methods: Spray | Flood | Drip | Low-energy

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo USA.gov logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
URL: http://water.usgs.gov/edu/irfurrow.html
Page Contact Information: Howard Perlman
Page Last Modified: Monday, 17-Mar-2014 11:03:25 EDT