By Michael Michaud, Executive Director, Hydraulic Institute
Having just returned from the annual National Ground Water Association show, I learned some new interesting facts. The United States has over 15 million private water wells serving over 40 million people. These water wells are largely located in rural, small, and underserved communities. Agricultural use represents over 37% of our nation’s surface and groundwater. That’s a big job for the 600,000 pumps that are used for agricultural irrigation. Most of these pumps (76%) are used to lift groundwater from wells while some (17%) pull from lakes, ponds and streams, making water accessible to distribute crops, livestock and other applications (where even more pumps are needed).
A recent study by Cadeo, a leading energy efficiency organization shows that over 50% of the energy used on agricultural irrigation systems could be saved and highlights specific opportunities to save energy, conserve water and reduce carbon. Upgrading pumping systems to improve pump efficiency and adding variable speed drives could save farmers $1.8 billion annually energy costs. What’s more, these upgrades would typically pay for themselves in under two years.
The Cadeo study states that 150,000 agricultural pumps (one-quarter) still run on fossil fuels. Simply swapping to electrically driven systems could improve overall efficiency by 54%, but connecting to the grid is often problematic in remote, rural locations. Advances in solar pumping technology and advances in modular designs will make it easier to scale solar pumping systems to meet specific needs. This is particularly beneficial for agricultural applications with varying water requirements.
Piping systems can also play an important role in conservation efforts where open irrigation canals provide water to 43% of all agricultural land in the US – and where 30% of this water is lost to seepage and evaporation. Enclosing these canals using plastic pipes which are cheaper, corrosion and earthquake resistant, could save 2.5x the average flow of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Taking a systems approach to irrigation pumping systems has the same benefits as in an industrial or commercial setting. As opportunities to include more efficient pump upgrades into U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs like EQIP become more likely, we should begin to see more pump system assessments in the agricultural and irrigation space. The upcoming farm bill has the opportunity to expand programs such as EQIP which helps farmers sustainably manage their water resources. If the EQIP program expands to encourage agricultural pumping system assessments as expected, it will also count efficient pump upgrades as a new and additional opportunity for farmers. HI’s Pump System Assessment Training and PSAP Certification are two new tools for farmers interested in maintaining their irrigation while reducing their energy and improving water conservation.