Technology helps reduce water supply gap
By Kate Campbell
Riverdale farmer Jean Errotabere says the newly installed wireless irrigation system in his tomato fields has been operating without a glitch. He expects to expand use of the technology in the future and reduce labor costs associated with manually adjusting irrigation equipment.
Wireless signals sent to this field irrigation switch aim to reduce water consumption and improve yields. Farmer Jean Errotabere says the box is sturdy and operates with two “C” batteries.
Faced with unreliable and dwindling water supplies, San Joaquin Valley farmers such as Jean Errotabere are turning to high-tech solutions to help bridge the supply gap. On his farm near Riverdale, Errotabere converted all crops to drip irrigation and installed a variety of water- and energy-saving devices, from variable-speed pumps to smart meters to desktop data management for crop production decisions.
Researchers at the California Water Institute at California State University, Fresno, say a growing number of farmers tie multiple technologies together to stretch irrigation supplies and to save energy used in moving water to fields or pumping it out of the ground.
The same forces reshaping the rest of the U.S. economy—technical innovation and global integration—are also driving water-strapped California farmers as they work to maintain yields and profitability in the face of shrinking water supplies.
While they employ water-efficient technology, Errotabere and other farmers say it doesn't solve the underlying problem of inadequate water storage and infrastructure. Even with Errotabere Ranch's strides in precision irrigation, this year's delivery of only 40 percent of contract water supply from the federal Central Valley Project means some of the family's fields have gone unplanted.
"To continue farming, technology will help, but we're going to need more reliable surface water to keep going in the future," Errotabere said. "These volatile water allocations mean we never know if there's going to be enough water to go around. It's tough."
Errotabere Ranches, a 6,000-acre diversified farming operation, is now 100 percent drip-irrigated. The next step is layering on various technologies to improve irrigation efficiency and keep fields in production in the face of ongoing water supply uncertainty.
The Westlands Water District, where Errotabere farms, has been helping farmers cope with limited water supplies through cost-sharing programs for irrigation system improvements. Federal programs also help farmers deploy advanced technology, but with much of the costs borne by individual growers.
Gayle Holman of Westlands Water District said farmers employ a variety of irrigation technology, including GPS, variable-frequency drives on pumping equipment, arrays of emitters and sensors, alternative energy sources, remote equipment operation and monitoring, integrated computing and data collection.
"This technology is a foot in the door of new farming models that will take food production to a new level," she said.
Describing himself as technologically "challenged," Errotabere laughed and said he didn't trust the technology at first, frequently driving to fields to check that the system was operating as programmed. One concern was whether signals from nearby Lemoore Naval Air Station might disrupt radio signals to the control box.
The system manufacturer, Nelson Irrigation, also remotely monitors the system's performance from its headquarters in Walla Walla, Wash. Errotabere does the same thing from his iPad, saying all he needs is a cell phone connection and he can monitor his irrigation from anywhere. So far, the wireless system has operated flawlessly, he said.
An added benefit of a wireless system, Errotabere said, is that it's less attractive to thieves looking to purloin solar panels or pull out electrical wires for the copper. And, he said, the lack of buried lines reduces installation costs.
"Although we will be adding to the system's capability in the future, right now we're using wireless communications strictly for irrigation," he said. "We monitor water application in hours, inches, flow and pressure. With buried drip lines, we're set up to only irrigate the plants' root zones and not apply below that."
Paul Goodman farms in the Dos Palos area and buys irrigation water through the Central California Irrigation District, a federal exchange contractor that this year received 75 percent of its contract amount.
"We're having to get by with a lot less water and survive in farming," Goodman said. "We're putting drip irrigation systems in and returning our tailwater to our fields, along with minimum tillage strategies, installing new technology and trying to reduce energy use."
Although technology allows for the gathering of large quantities of data, Goodman said, "basically, every year is different. You can use some data to make decisions, but there's nothing in the book that's going to tell you how much irrigation water you're going to get year to year."
At the California Agricultural Water Management Council, Brandon Souza said growers continue to convert their operations to precision irrigation methods.
In 2010, the council, working with the California Farm Water Coalition, commissioned a poll of San Joaquin Valley farmers to investigate irrigation practices and the adoption of technology. About 60 percent of farmers surveyed said they already have optimized efficiency to the extent possible.
If every farm acre in the state had precision irrigation equipment installed, Errotabere said, there still would be a water shortage.
"We've stepped up to the next level, but it's not going to make more water," he said. "We're living on the foresight of past generations. We've got to step up and make decisions that will ensure a reliable water supply for future generations."
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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