By Sylvia Kantor, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

Jacoby-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Water scarcity – one of the toughest challenges predicted for the 21st century – is being addressed by Washington State University. As part of a multistate research program, WSU is among 19 land-grant universities honored recently for efforts to help farmers irrigate land more efficiently, especially during droughts and water shortages.

“A safe, reliable supply of water is inextricably linked to food security,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

“The five-fold increase in irrigated acres that took place during the 20th century cannot be repeated in the 21st century – there isn’t the space,” he said. “Instead, we must increase efficiency of the irrigated farmland we have, and that is what this project is doing.”

Subsurface microirrigation system for 12-year-old grape vines at WSU Roza Research Farm near Prosser, Wash. (Photo by Pete Jacoby, WSU)

The national Microirrigation for Sustainable Water Use W-2128 research program was presented the 2014 Experiment Station Section Excellence in Multistate Research Award by NIFA and the Experiment Station Committee on Organization and Policy at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

The award recognizes outstanding efforts of researchers and extension specialists who have come together to tackle a priority issue that no one institution can address on its own.

More crop per drop

Irrigation systems that apply high volumes of water over wide areas can lose a lot to runoff, wind and evaporation, which results in over- or under-watered plants. In contrast, microirrigation systems reduce water waste and can produce more crop per drop.

These systems use special timers, sensors and a network of narrow tubes to deliver the right amount of water and nutrients to plants at the right time.

Microirrigation decreases contaminants carried to surface water and groundwater and can improve the quality of agricultural crops.

In the last five years, the W-2128 microirrigation research program has led to new equipment and tools that are easier to install, more durable and more precise. Engaging farmers around these advances has encouraged adoption of microirrigation systems and led to significant economic and environmental impacts.

Wine grapes sip water

WSU scientists and extension specialists have assisted farmers with microirrigation for more than two decades.

Pete Jacoby, professor of crop and soil sciences and the project lead, said that as a result, most of the 50,000 acres of wine grapes in Washington are grown under microirrigation. Use of microsprinklers in combination with surface drip systems continues to increase in tree fruit and juice grape production, he said.

New research funded as a continuation of the W-2128 project, referred to as W-3128, is under way to determine the role of new and advanced methods of subsurface drip irrigation in cooperation with Washington wine grape growers. The study will compare plant responses to water applied at subsurface depths of up to four feet and water applied via surface drip irrigation.

This research could help reduce costs associated with pumping water and help conserve resources by curtailing water loss to weeds and evaporation.

“If this new technique of subsurface microirrigation proves effective, I believe wine and juice grapes can be grown with less than half the water required to do so with current surface drip irrigation systems,” Jacoby said.

Other land-grant institutions participating in the national project include: Auburn University; University of Arizona; University of California, Davis; University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources; Colorado State University; University of Florida; University of Hawaii; University of Idaho; Iowa State University; Kansas State University; Mississippi State University, University of Nebraska, New Mexico State University, Cornell University; Oregon State University; University of Puerto Rico; Texas A&M AgriLife Research; University of the Virgin Islands; Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Research Service.


Pete Jacoby, WSU crop and soil sciences, 509-335-3495,
Sylvia Kantor, WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, 206-770-6063,