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What is Flood Irrigation?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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Flood irrigation is an irrigation technique in which a field is essentially flooded with water which is allowed to soak into the soil to irrigate the plants. This type of irrigation is one of the oldest techniques known to man, and can be seen in use in some developing nations and in regions where water supplies are ample. There are several different styles of flood irrigation in use, with varying degrees of efficiency. This type of irrigation has been criticized because it can be extremely wasteful when it is not done with care.

The original flood irrigation was done by hand, with people carrying buckets to the fields and dumping water on them. Eventually, people developed irrigation canals to carry water from wells and springs, eliminating the need to hand carry it. This type of irrigation is a natural outgrowth of this early irrigation; when it's time to irrigate, water is released and allowed to flood a field.

One form of flood irrigation is basin irrigation, in which water floods a basin surrounded by berms, usually made from earth. This technique can be useful for crops which need to remain submerged, like rice, and for soil which absorbs slowly. In furrow irrigation, the water runs down furrows between rows of crops, reaching the roots as it is absorbed. Surge irrigation involves the use of pulses of water which spurt, soak in, and spurt again.

The big problem with flood irrigation is that not all of the water used reaches the plants. Up to 40% can be lost through evaporation and runoff. Recapturing runoff can help to address this issue, as can the use of surge irrigation, which encourages the water to be absorbed, rather than leaving standing water to evaporate. Another issue is that flood irrigation can encourage the growth of certain kinds of crop pests, which is not desirable, and standing water can attract mosquitoes and other insects, making it very important to water on level fields with proper drainage.

While flood irrigation is primarily seen in agricultural use, it is sometimes used in residential landscaping as well. This is most common in areas where there is lots of available water, and it is managed carefully to avoid flooding streets and sidewalks and causing other problems. In some regions, entire neighborhoods are fitted out for flood irrigation, and the irrigation is controlled remotely by the water company for people who want to sign up for it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Comparables — On May 09, 2011

@FrameMaker & GenevaMech- I took a tour of a great urban farm in Phoenix. The property was full of lush greenery, having everything from fruit trees to grapes. It seemed so out of place for such an arid city, but it was all possible due to flood irrigation.

The owner of the urban farm grew everything organically, and gave all of the food away. I thought it was an interesting use of a property that had flood irrigation grandfathered in.

By GenevaMech — On May 07, 2011

@Framemaker- I live in Tempe in an area that also has flood irrigation. The reason that we have flood irrigation is because the area was once an orange grove. Agriculture in and around Phoenix was very prevalent until the city saw a development boom in the latter half of the 20th century. The agricultural areas of Phoenix were all flood irrigated, and residents were allowed to choose if they wanted flood irrigation systems or conventional irrigation once the areas had been developed.

While it may seem crazy for an area that is last in line for water from the Colorado River to use so much water, The state of Arizona built reservoirs to hold the excess water in their water rights rather than send it down river to Mexico. This allowed the Valley of the Sun to have enough water to become the once agricultural center of Arizona and the current golf capital of the country.

By FrameMaker — On May 06, 2011

I live in Phoenix and my neighborhood has flood irrigation. Our lawns are surrounded by shallow berms and there is a large valve in the center of the lawn. Every so often, someone comes around and opens the valves for an hour or so depending on our time slot. The lawns are allowed to flood until the water soaks into the ground. While the article said that flood irrigation is not that great because it leaves standing water that evaporates, our water absorbs into the ground within about an hour. I do not think that much of it evaporates.

I am curious to know why a city like Phoenix has flood irrigation though when it is in the middle of a desert. I would think that more efficient irrigation systems would be mandated in Phoenix.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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