The History of Irrigation in the United States

1 Jul 19

Remember going to the beach as a kid? You have your pail and shovel in tote, ready to engineer the best sandcastle ever constructed. 

You lay the foundation far enough away from the waves to protect your design from destruction, but you also want to guard your work of art with a moat. So you take your shovel and start to dig a shallow canal from the ocean to the sandcastle. As the waves crash inland, it carries water through the canal and into the moat. 

You smile. Your sandcastle now has a strong line of defense. 

You also just successfully participated in a centuries-old method of transporting a water source to a dry section of land called irrigation!

The Beginning of Irrigation in America

The earliest traces of irrigation in the United States go back as far as 1200 BC in the desert and plains of modern-day Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. The Las Capas site, located close to Tucson, Arizona, shows America’s earliest form of discovered irrigation. A network of canals filtered into many small fields that stretched to a territory of roughly 100 acres. 

Archaeologists believe the Las Capas community near present-day Tucson totaled a sum of under 200 people. The Hohokam society, which lived in the valleys of the Gila and Salt Rivers of Arizona, is believed to be the ancestors to the Las Capas people. 

Aerial view of dried irrigation ditch canal through agricultural field during hot summer season, drone point of view

(Irrigation canals were dug by early Native Americans to transport water to fields of crops.)

The Hohokam community is regarded to have been the most successful agricultural farmers in the Southwest’s history, dating as late as the mid-1400s. The farming society developed an extensive grid of canals to feed water from the river sources into their fields. These canals measured 30 feet wide and 12 feet deep and traveled as far as 20 miles throughout the river valley. 

Around the same time as the Hohokam society, the Native American groups of the Mogollon and Puebloans also saw farming success due to irrigation. 

Types of Common Irrigation in Agriculture 

Furrow Irrigation Systems 

This method of irrigation combines small, shallow channels of water downhill. This type of irrigation is typically used in straight lines and rests between the beds of crops. 

Center-Pivot Sprinkler System 

A self-propelled system that includes a single pipeline that sits two to four meters off the ground, delivers water to a circular section of crops as attached towers rotate around the pivot point. 

Aerial view of irrigation equipment watering green soybean crops field in summer afternoon, drone point of view for unusual angle for agricultural activity

(Center-pivot irrigation is a common type of irrigation in American agriculture.) 

Solid Set Sprinkler System 

Normally used in vineyards and orchards, this form of irrigation usually buries pipelines below the surface, and sprinkler nozzles are placed above surface level to provide water. 

Traveling Gun Sprinkler System 

A large sprinkler, which is fed by a long rubber hose is attached to a trailer and then guided along a lane of crops by a cable. 

Low Flow Irrigation Systems

This method of watering plants and crops encompasses drip and trickle irrigation where small diameter tubes are placed above or below the surface. Slow and regular supplies of water are added to the soil through the narrow tubes. This form of irrigation applies water directly to the root of the crop. 

Benefits of Irrigation

Flexibility in the system of transportation of water to crops/plants 

Helps produce higher quality crops 

Lengthens growing season 

Maximizes fertilizer applications 

Allows for cultivation in areas that might otherwise be deemed uninhabitable for crops/plants 

Insurance against natural droughts and weather fluctuation 

Need Irrigation for Your Garden or Lawn? 

Whether you are needing help keeping your lawn adequately watered, or struggling to provide your plants the hydration they need, contact us to help provide you with the irrigation services you need!