Principles of Efficient Irrigation

Published online: Feb 11, 2022 Articles, Final Countdown, Irrigation Irrigation Association
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This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

A report from USDA’s Economic Research Service updated in October 2021 states, “The future of irrigated agriculture will depend in part on producers’ ability to improve on-farm water management for crop production. Upgrades in irrigation system technologies and improved water-management practices can enhance on-farm water-use efficiency.”

The Irrigation Association’s Principles of Efficient Agricultural Irrigation identifies the key concepts that a grower or producer should follow to attain the most efficient use of water. Following are those key principles, which are proven for successful, efficient agricultural irrigation:

  1. Use qualified professionals to plan and help manage irrigation systems.

According to USDA reports, only about 10% of growers seek advice to help them manage water resources better. Engineers and designers trained in irrigation systems are a great advantage when managing water resources for irrigation. A grower can obtain valuable information by consulting with an irrigation equipment dealer or manufacturer for design, installation, maintenance and management of the system.

  1. Know and protect the water supply and the environment.

Understanding the source of water is a key part of selecting the best irrigation method or system for your operation. The availability, quantity and reliability of various water sources are extremely important in planning an irrigation system.

  1. Identify the soil type and its soil water characteristics to manage the water supply.

A few simple soil tests can provide valuable information that impact irrigation efficiency, such as soil type and the water-holding capacity and infiltration rate of that soil. Having access to soils maps and/or surveying the soil to identify variations within the field are useful for making adjustments to the nutrient and water application requirements during the growing season.

  1. Understand crop water needs to know when and how much water should be applied.

One of the best methods to determine and plan for crop water needs is to use evapotranspiration [ET] data. Accessing reference ET data and modifying it to fit the particular crop can be used by the grower to estimate the next irrigation event and the amount of water that will need to be applied.

  1. Select appropriate irrigation methods that will efficiently deliver water to the crop.

An efficient irrigation system or method must consider the soil type and properties, field topography and the type of crops being grown. Another consideration is how the irrigation system integrates into other farm operations such as planting, cultivating and harvesting.

  1. Plan and implement irrigation scheduling to use water efficiently.

Irrigation scheduling requires knowing two things: 1) the appropriate amount of water to apply, and 2) when to apply that water.

  1. Adopt and apply innovative technology to improve water management.

The concept of “precision agriculture” relies extensively on technology to maximize the benefit of resources being used to grow a crop. The challenge of being able to grow enough food, fiber, feed and fuel for a growing world population will rely on the innovations in technology that can be applied to agriculture and adopted by the grower.

  1. Maintain accurate records to facilitate better decisions on crop inputs.

Good records that are organized and easily accessed are a great management tool.

For efficient irrigation, it is particularly useful to keep track of weather data, water use, water quality, system performance and maintenance, energy costs, and efficiency analyses.

  1. Anticipate water shortages and have planned strategies to respond.

When it is necessary to reduce the amount of water being used, the principles of efficient irrigation offer the grower several strategies that may promote success. Improving the performance and efficiency of the irrigation system needs to be a high priority.


Many experts have devoted their careers to improving agricultural crop production. While adequate water applied at the correct time is necessary to produce profitable, healthy crops, irrigation is just one part of all a grower must take into account. The principles for irrigation efficiency must work in harmony with other best practices for growing plants, including soil, nutrient and pest management.