Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Promise of Precision Agriculture in Drought-Ridden California

Farmer views precision farming (Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Some Central Valley Project water contractors will face a second year of receiving no water and some San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts are delivering no more than 25 percent of normal supplies, according to the University of California Davis.  As more farmers face dwindling supplies, there are variety of high tech tools, including GPS, sensors and big data analytics, to help them manage water supply; if they can get them at the right price. 

“It’s not as though they’re getting off Scot free,” says Ed Osann, senior water policy analyst with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

As water allocations dwindle, more farmers are drilling down to tap groundwater supplies, which should be regulated more strictly, says Osann.  If the drought continues, however, tapping more groundwater is not a sustainable approach.  So increased conservation will have to come to California’s farms and the irrigation districts that serve them.

California’s farmers have made strides in water efficiency, but there is still considerable headroom.  NRDC  found that economic productivity of water [pdf] in California rose from US $420 per acre-foot in the 1960s to more than $700 per acre-foot in 2009. From 1990 to 2010, micro sprinkler and drip irrigation use increased from 15 percent to nearly 40 percent in California.

Many California water districts deliver water through a series of open canals and pipelines that use gravity to deliver water.  Far more farmers would use precision irrigation methods if they could get pressurized water on demand, says Osann. “It makes it hard to irrigate with any precision if you’re on a fixed schedule that’s determined on the physical capability of the delivery system,” he says. “If we want a more sustainable future for California agriculture, this is a direction to go.”

Demonstration projects funded by the federal government found that on-demand pressurized systems improve water use efficiency by an average of 25 percent. In South San Joaquin Irrigation District, the combination of pressurized irrigation system with controls and measurement technology for individual farms allowed farmers to grow 30 percent more food using 30 percent less water.

Read more at The Promise of Precision Agriculture in Drought-Ridden California

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