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In California, every drop of water counts. It's an issue that has loomed over the state for decades, and it continues to cause concern as residents look to the future.
“Ensuring a water supply that can meet the needs of urban, agricultural, and environmental uses will be California's biggest challenge in the twenty-first century,” says Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director for the California Water Alliance.
Founded in 2009 by 15 Central Valley farmers and agribusiness men and women, the California Water Alliance is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. It was formed to achieve both short-term relief and a long-term solution to California's water emergency.
Part of that urgency is focused on ensuring that the state's ag community has enough water to grow crops.
“We advocate for an equitable and reliable water supply for all. No one water user should be sacrificed for the sake of the other two. And no two should be sacrificed for the sake of one,” says Bettencourt. “It's about looking at new technology and at balanced approaches, and demanding we use the best possible resources we have available in order to provide for all three.”
Seeking a solution
For Errotabere Ranches in Riverdale, California, improving irrigation management is driven by both the water shortage and the higher cost of water.
“We needed to do more with less on all of the resources we use,” says Daniel Errotabere. “There is a strong need to utilize technology, and it has become a more critical component in the operation.”
He and his brothers, Jean and Remi, grow almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, processing garlic, processing tomatoes, garbanzo beans, wheat, cantaloupe, and pima cotton across 5,000 acres.
“Since we're farming in a federal irrigation project, the water available in a given year has some limitations to the weather cycles that we go through but also the environmental restrictions to conveying that water,” Errotabere explains. “Last year was a wet year, and we had 80% of our contract supplied. This year, it's 40%. That's because we had a tremendous carryover of water from the prior year. If we have another dry year like this one, we could be in the 20% range or less.”
The variability of the water supply means the operation has to stretch the supply as much as possible to deal not only with the low allocation but also with the possibility of having to buy water from other districts when theirs is short.
“The costs for the allocated water will range from $100 to $120 an acre-foot,” says Errotabere. “The lighter the year, the higher the cost. And the wetter the year, the lower the cost. If we go out on the market to buy water from another district, it ranges from $200 and $400 per acre-foot.”
In the last five years, the family has incorporated GPS technology into its operation to better manage water and offset costs.
“We're fortunate to have the technology to stretch every drop as far as we can,” he notes.
In the past, the Errotaberes utilized furrow irrigation in their fields.
“Furrows were very inefficient,” recalls Errotabere. “GPS allows management of irrigation and production practices to be more efficient. Equipment is driven by GPS, as it lays out and installs the buried drip in the rows.”
With lines buried in the crop beds, GPS helps them be more accurate.
“Tractors practically drive themselves,” he says. “There is no damage on the drip tape, which also means it doesn't have to be removed or replaced as often.”
It also means it can accommodate different crops in the same field, which saves production costs. For example, tomatoes are grown on 66-inch beds and then split for cotton that grows on 33-inch beds.
“GPS aligns the furrows so we know where the tape is buried. That's handy years down the road when we remove that tape, because the data tells us exactly where it is,” he notes. “In land preparation, we have gone from four or five passes down to one or two, which has resulted in a savings of $100 to $150 per acre. We are using less fuel and less manpower, and we see less wear and tear on the equipment.
“Daily preparations are now easier to manage, because fields and overall layout for each crop are already in place for the next year,” he says. “The overall savings ranges from 30% to 50%. That takes into account labor savings and better managed crops for higher yields.”
In fact, the addition of drip irrigation lines has reduced the ranch's workforce by two full-time employees, which saves around $60,000 annually.
So what's next on the technology agenda? “Enhanced reporting and monitoring for a lot of what we do,” says Errotabere.
This summer, they implemented wireless valves in the drip system of one of their fields. “The field has a programming panel located on one of our deep wells,” he explains. “We're able to run six-hour shifts without having anyone out there to turn the valves on or off. Rather than running from field to field, the irrigator's primary role now is to make sure the system is behaving the way it should.”
The ranch also invested in iPads. “Through their iPads, the field men send daily reports on the meter readings and schedules,” he notes. “We're able to track all of the irrigation activities going on.
“It also allows electronic submission of time sheets,” he adds. “They don't have to drop off sheets anymore. It's all field reported and emailed.”
As he looks to the future, it's an area Errotabere feels is going to grow. “The irrigation program I mentioned earlier will be iPad-driven in the near future. It's experimental at this point, but we will be able to track an awful lot with some of these programs and work through hardware such as iPads.
“Five years from now we'll have to continue to press the envelope of technology and stay on the path of using less water, less labor, and less overall use of equipment,” says Errotabere. “Everything boils down to doing more with less.”