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The Importance of Surface Water in the Delta

March 27, 2024 - George Baird, AFM, AAC

Photo of a flooded rice field. As the water drains off, it moves into a tail water recovery ditch and recaptured in a reservoir or pumped directly onto additional fields for irrigation. This provides opportunity to capture runoff from irrigation or rainfall and reducing ground water use.

Tailwater recovery systems, reservoirs, and relifts are some of the water carrying practices farm operators, landowners and conservationists implement to efficiently move water in the Delta. While there are several Delta aquifers used across the region, most farmland depends on pumping from is the Mississippi River Alluvial Aquifer.

Groundwater is used to irrigate row crops whether through pivot, furrows with polypipe, or flooding for rice for duck hunting. The 2017 Census of Agriculture reported 58 million irrigated cropland acres across the country. A large concentration of irrigated land falls in the west where many crops require additional water for production. Arkansas ranks third in the nation for number of irrigated acres, with significant irrigation also found in Louisiana and Mississippi. The implementation of conservation methods in the Delta allows producers to sustainably use surface water to preserve one of our most precious resources for years to come.

Surface water is crucial to cropland, especially in regions that are classified as “Critical Groundwater Areas,” or areas that are not experiencing as much groundwater recharge. Reservoirs serve as a holding pond for water and a tailwater recovery system as a ditch on the low end of a field. Once the excess water is captured in a reservoir or a tailwater recovery system, relifts are used to pump and recirculate the excess water back into irrigation practices. This allows less water to be pumped from the Mississippi River Alluvial Aquifer.

The additional capital expenditure is one reason we do not see more reservoirs than we do today, with moving extraordinary yards of dirt and then also taking valuable cropland out of production. This is a kind of double-edged sword that most people are battling: Do I take cropland out of production, or do I have a safer way to irrigate my crops?  In many regions around the Mississippi River Delta, there are cost-share incentive programs that are often available to implement these practices. 

Not all farmland in the Delta has access to surface water and moving it long distances is often more expensive than pumping from shallow wells. Two major projects are underway in the Arkansas Delta, The Grand Prairie Irrigation Project and the Bayou Meto Water Project; both costing over $1 billion to construct. Both projects have been in the works since the early 1900’s and have finally broken ground within the past two years. These major water conservation projects are being implemented to reduce long distance surface water pumping, as well as protect our groundwater resource.

The Delta faces its own unique challenges, but lower land costs, plentiful water, larger parcel size, and the opportunity to enhance profitability more sophisticated farming methods have attracted – and will continue to attract – the attention of investors in the region. The longer-term return performance is highly competitive even if the transactional market volume has been challengingly low in terms of making acquisitions and getting exposure at scale to the region’s agriculture. Those interested in exploring farmland are encouraged to reach out to our Delta Team by contacting landmanagement@peoplescompany.com.

Published in: Land Management