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Article

Center-pivot irrigation systems started in the United States in the mid-20th century as an irrigation method which surpassed the traditional surface irrigation methods. At that time, they had the potential to bring about higher irrigation efficiencies with less water consumption although their requirements in energy were higher too. Among their benefits, it is highlighted the feasibility to control water management as well as the application of agro-chemicals dissolved in the irrigation water and thus, center-pivot irrigation systems have spread worldwide. Nevertheless, since the last decade of the 20th century, they are facing actual concerns regarding ecosystem sustainability and water and energy efficiencies. Likewise, the 21st century has brought about the cutting edge issue “precision irrigation” which has made feasible the application of water, fertilizers, and chemicals as the plant demands taking into account variables such as: sprinkler´s pressure, terrain topography, soil variability, and climatic conditions. Likewise, it could be adopted to deal with the current key issues regarding the sustainability and efficiency of the center-pivot irrigation to maintain the agro-ecosystems but still, other issues such as the organic matter incorporation are far to be understood and they will need further studies.

Article

Luis S. Pereira and José M. Gonçalves

Surface irrigation is the oldest and most widely used irrigation method, more than 83% of the world’s irrigated area. It comprises traditional systems, developed over millennia, and modern systems with mechanized and often automated water application and adopting precise land-leveling. It adapts well to non-sloping conditions, low to medium soil infiltration characteristics, most crops, and crop mechanization as well as environmental conditions. Modern methods provide for water and energy saving, control of environmental impacts, labor saving, and cropping economic success, thus for competing with pressurized irrigation methods. Surface irrigation refers to a variety of gravity application of the irrigation water, which infiltrates into the soil while flowing over the field surface. The ways and timings of how water flows over the field and infiltrates the soil determine the irrigation phases—advance, maintenance or ponding, depletion, and recession—which vary with the irrigation method, namely paddy basin, leveled basin, border and furrow irrigation, generally used for field crops, and wild flooding and water spreading from contour ditches, used for pasture lands. System performance is commonly assessed using the distribution uniformity indicator, while management performance is assessed with the application efficiency or the beneficial water use fraction. The factors influencing system performance are multiple and interacting—inflow rate, field length and shape, soil hydraulics roughness, field slope, soil infiltration rate, and cutoff time—while management performance, in addition to these factors, depends upon the soil water deficit at time of irrigation, thus on the way farmers are able to manage irrigation. The process of surface irrigation is complex to describe because it combines surface flow with infiltration into the soil profile. Numerous mathematical computer models have therefore been developed for its simulation, aimed at both design adopting a target performance and field evaluation of actual performance. The use of models in design allows taking into consideration the factors referred to before and, when adopting any type of decision support system or multicriteria analysis, also taking into consideration economic and environmental constraints and issues. There are various aspects favoring and limiting the adoption of surface irrigation. Favorable aspects include the simplicity of its adoption at farm in flat lands with low infiltration rates, namely when water conveyance and distribution are performed with canal and/or low-pressure pipe systems, low capital investment, and low energy consumption. Most significant limitations include high soil infiltration and high variability of infiltration throughout the field, land leveling requirements, need for control of a constant inflow rate, difficulties in matching irrigation time duration with soil water deficit at time of irrigation, and difficult access to equipment for mechanized and automated water application and distribution. The modernization of surface irrigation systems and design models, as well as models and tools usable to support surface irrigation management, have significantly impacted water use and productivity, and thus competitiveness of surface irrigation.

Article

Noa Kekuewa Lincoln and Peter Vitousek

Agriculture in Hawaiʻi was developed in response to the high spatial heterogeneity of climate and landscape of the archipelago, resulting in a broad range of agricultural strategies. Over time, highly intensive irrigated and rainfed systems emerged, supplemented by extensive use of more marginal lands that supported considerable populations. Due to the late colonization of the islands, the pathways of development are fairly well reconstructed in Hawaiʻi. The earliest agricultural developments took advantage of highly fertile areas with abundant freshwater, utilizing relatively simple techniques such as gardening and shifting cultivation. Over time, investments into land-based infrastructure led to the emergence of irrigated pondfield agriculture found elsewhere in Polynesia. This agricultural form was confined by climatic and geomorphological parameters, and typically occurred in wetter, older landscapes that had developed deep river valleys and alluvial plains. Once initiated, these wetland systems saw regular, continuous development and redevelopment. As populations expanded into areas unable to support irrigated agriculture, highly diverse rainfed agricultural systems emerged that were adapted to local environmental and climatic variables. Development of simple infrastructure over vast areas created intensive rainfed agricultural systems that were unique in Polynesia. Intensification of rainfed agriculture was confined to areas of naturally occurring soil fertility that typically occurred in drier and younger landscapes in the southern end of the archipelago. Both irrigated and rainfed agricultural areas applied supplementary agricultural strategies in surrounding areas such as agroforestry, home gardens, and built soils. Differences in yield, labor, surplus, and resilience of agricultural forms helped shape differentiated political economies, hierarchies, and motivations that played a key role in the development of sociopolitical complexity in the islands.

Article

The Basin of Mexico is a key world region for understanding agricultural intensification and the development of ancient and historic cities and states. Archaeologists working in the region have had a long-standing interest in understanding the dynamics of interactions between society and environment and their research has been at the forefront of advances in both method and theory. The Basin of Mexico was the geopolitical core of the Aztec empire, the largest state in the history of Mesoamerica. Its growth was sustained by a complex economy that has been the subject of much research. Two themes underlie a broad interest in the pre-Hispanic agriculture of the Basin of Mexico. First, how with a Neolithic technology did the Aztecs and their predecessors sustain the growth of large cites, dense rural populations, and the largest state system in the history of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica? Second, what is the relationship of agricultural intensification and urbanization and state formation? Mesoamerica is the only world region where primary civilizations developed that lacked domestic herbivores for either food or transportation. Their farming depended entirely on human labor and hand tools but sustained large cities, dense populations, and complex social institutions. Intensive agriculture began early and was promoted by risk, ecological diversity, and social differentiation, and included irrigation, terracing, and drained fields (chinampas). Most farming was managed by smallholder households and local communities, which encouraged corporate forms of governance and collective action. Environmental impacts included erosion and deposition, but were limited compared with the degradation that took place in the colonial period.

Article

Assessing the environmental footprints of modern agriculture requires a balanced approach that sets the obviously negative effects (e.g., incidents with excessive use of inputs) against benefits stemming from increased resource use efficiencies. In the case of rice production, the regular flooding of fields comprises a distinctive feature, as compared to other crops, which directly or indirectly affects diverse impacts on the environment. In the regional context of Southeast Asia, rice production is characterized by dynamic changes in terms of crop management practices, so that environmental footprints can only be assessed from time-dependent developments rather than from a static view. The key for the Green Revolution in rice was the introduction of high-yielding varieties in combination with a sufficient water and nutrient supply as well as pest management. More recently, mechanization has evolved as a major trend in modern rice production. Mechanization has diverse environmental impacts and may also be instrumental in tackling the most drastic pollution source from rice production, namely, open field burning of straw. As modernization of rice production is imperative for future food supplies, there is scope for developing sustainable and high-yielding rice production systems by capitalizing on the positive aspects of modernization from a local to a global scale.

Article

Soil salinity has been causing problems for agriculturists for millennia, primarily in irrigated lands. The importance of salinity issues is increasing, since large areas are affected by irrigation-induced salt accumulation. A wide knowledge base has been collected to better understand the major processes of salt accumulation and choose the right method of mitigation. There are two major types of soil salinity that are distinguished because of different properties and mitigation requirements. The first is caused mostly by the large salt concentration and is called saline soil, typically corresponding to Solonchak soils. The second is caused mainly by the dominance of sodium in the soil solution or on the soil exchange complex. This latter type is called “sodic” soil, corresponding to Solonetz soils. Saline soils have homogeneous soil profiles with relatively good soil structure, and their appropriate mitigation measure is leaching. Naturally sodic soils have markedly different horizons and unfavorable physical properties, such as low permeability, swelling, plasticity when wet, and hardness when dry, and their limitation for agriculture is mitigated typically by applying gypsum. Salinity and sodicity need to be chemically quantified before deciding on the proper management strategy. The most complex management and mitigation of salinized irrigated lands involves modern engineering including calculations of irrigation water rates and reclamation materials, provisions for drainage, and drainage disposal. Mapping-oriented soil classification was developed for naturally saline and sodic soils and inherited the first soil categories introduced more than a century ago, such as Solonchak and Solonetz in most of the total of 24 soil classification systems used currently. USDA Soil Taxonomy is one exception, which uses names composed of formative elements.

Article

Henry Darcy was an engineer who built the drinking water supply system of the French city of Dijon in the mid-19th century. In doing so, he developed an interest in the flow of water through sands, and, together with Charles Ritter, he experimented (in a hospital, for unclear reasons) with water flow in a vertical cylinder filled with different sands to determine the laws of flow of water through sand. The results were published in an appendix to Darcy’s report on his work on Dijon’s water supply. Darcy and Ritter installed mercury manometers at the bottom and near the top of the cylinder, and they observed that the water flux density through the sand was proportional to the difference between the mercury levels. After mercury levels are converted to equivalent water levels and recast in differential form, this relationship is known as Darcy’s Law, and until this day it is the cornerstone of the theory of water flow in porous media. The development of groundwater hydrology and soil water hydrology that originated with Darcy’s Law is tracked through seminal contributions over the past 160 years. Darcy’s Law was quickly adopted for calculating groundwater flow, which blossomed after the introduction of a few very useful simplifying assumptions that permitted a host of analytical solutions to groundwater problems, including flows toward pumped drinking water wells and toward drain tubes. Computers have made possible ever more advanced numerical solutions based on Darcy’s Law, which have allowed tailor-made computations for specific areas. In soil hydrology, Darcy’s Law itself required modification to facilitate its application for different soil water contents. The understanding of the relationship between the potential energy of soil water and the soil water content emerged early in the 20th century. The mathematical formalization of the consequences for the flow rate and storage change of soil water was established in the 1930s, but only after the 1970s did computers become powerful enough to tackle unsaturated flows head-on. In combination with crop growth models, this allowed Darcy-based models to aid in the setup of irrigation practices and to optimize drainage designs. In the past decades, spatial variation of the hydraulic properties of aquifers and soils has been shown to affect the transfer of solutes from soils to groundwater and from groundwater to surface water. More recently, regional and continental-scale hydrology have been required to quantify the role of the terrestrial hydrological cycle in relation to climate change. Both developments may pose new areas of application, or show the limits of applicability, of a law derived from a few experiments on a cylinder filled with sand in the 1850s.

Article

Satellite reconnaissance of the Earth’s surface provides critical information about the state of human interaction with the natural environment. The strongest impact is agricultural, reflecting land-use approaches to food production extending back to the dawn of civilization. To variable degrees, depending upon location, regional field patterns result from traditional farming practices, surveying methods, regional histories, policies, political agendas, environmental circumstances, and economic welfare. Satellite imaging in photographic true or false color is an important means of evaluating the nature and implications of agricultural practices and their impacts on the surrounding world. Important platforms with publicly accessible links to satellite image sets include those of the European Space Agency, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Centre D’etudes Spatiales, Airbus, and various other governmental programs. Reprocessing of data worldwide in scope by commercial concerns including Digital Globe, Terrametrics, and GoogleEarth in the 21st century enable ready examination of most of the Earth’s surface in great detail and natural colors. The potential for monitoring and improving understanding of agriculture and its role in the Earth system is considerable thanks to these new ways of viewing the planet. Space reconnaissance starkly reveals the consequences of unique land surveys for the rapid development of agriculture and political control in wilderness areas, including the U.S. Public Land Survey and Tierras Bajas systems. Traditional approaches toward agriculture are clearly shown in ribbon farms, English enclosures and medieval field systems, and terracing in many parts of the world. Irrigation works, some thousands of years old, may be seen in floodplains and dryland areas, notably the Maghreb and the deep Sahara, where center-pivot fields have recently appeared in areas once considered too dry to cultivate. Approaches for controlling erosion, including buffer zones, shelter belts, strip and contour farming, can be easily identified. Also evident are features related to field erosion and soil alteration that have advanced to crisis stage, such as badland development and widespread salinization. Pollution related to farm runoff, and the piecemeal (if not rapid) loss of farmlands due to urbanization can be examined in ways favoring more comprehensive evaluation of human impacts on the planetary surface. Developments in space technologies and observational platforms will continue indefinitely, promising ever-increasing capacity to understand how humans relate to the environment.