Date: May 01, 2013
May 2013 - Irrigation Technology
Irrigation technology is evolving rapidly.

What if irrigation was an exact science?  It may not be that far off thanks to evolving technology and teams of dedicated researchers working toward that and other water solutions.

Early in 2010, Western Growers joined NASA Ames Research Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Marshall Space Flight Center, California State University (CSU) Monterey Bay, and the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to work on a joint project, “Water Supply and Management in California.”  The project developed new data products and applications from satellite data to support water managers and growers in addressing a range of management challenges.  Under the project, one of the applications developed provides growers with information and data products designed to support growers in making irrigation management decisions.

The Satellite Irrigation Management Support (SIMS) application was developed by NASA Ames and CSUMB in partnership with Western Growers, DWR, USDA, and collaborating farms and commercial growers.  It combines real-time data from NASA and USGS satellites with information from DWR’s California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS) to map crop canopy conditions, crop coefficients, and crop water requirements across nine million acres of farmland in California.  Field-level data and maps are updated daily, and can be accessed by growers via an online tool.

“Using the latest irrigation technology growers can benefit from information and tools that can assist them in maximizing resources and efficiency facilitating advances in irrigation management,” said Sonia Salas, director of science and technology for WG.

Salas wrote about the project in the October 2011 edition of WG&S.  She also served as a member of a review board during the development stage of the project.  “The system created as a result of this project allows users to input specific information, and based on satellite observations and the data infrastructure built by NASA, get parameters that will help them with their irrigation decisions,” she said.

While the development phase of this project has been completed and the prototype interface is publicly available, Salas said some additional work is currently underway to complete an interface for mobile phones and tablets, and to ensure the successful transition to long-term operations.

Researchers with the project have worked diligently with growers to understand their needs, challenges and incorporate their input in the development of this technology.  The WG executive said Forrest Melton, senior research scientist with CSU Monterey Bay and NASA Ames has played a key part on it.  “There is a need: water resources are limited and maximizing its benefits is really important,” she said.

“Our most important goal in this project was to find ways to make satellite data easily accessible and useful to growers,” Melton said.  “We recognize that growers have to account for many different factors in managing irrigation.  Working with Western Growers and our collaborating growers across California has been a critical part of the development of this new system, and inputs and insights from our partners has been of tremendous value.”

In partnership with commercial growers, DWR, USDA, the University of California Cooperative Extension, and CSU Fresno, the project team is currently completing field validation studies and also beginning work on yield trials to quantify the benefits of using information from SIMS and CIMIS in managing irrigation.  Melton said NASA is also working with project partners to develop a strategy for sustaining the SIMS application over the long-term.

Water resources and the global water cycle is an important part of the Earth Science Division at NASA, said Bradley Doorn, water resources program manager, Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters.  “We work with water resource managers, many of whom are focused on agriculture, to understand what challenges and what decisions they need to address now and in the future — and how NASA science and observations can help them,” he said.

He added that managing our changing resources and understanding what’s happening in our water cycle is a critical part of our future.  The push is a result of advancement in technology, including computer technology, in the agricultural sector and other sectors of resource management.  “We’re not going to create more water,” Doorn said, “and without Earth observations, we’re not going to find a solution.  NASA can help provide a crucial understanding of the changes in our environment.”

He said the goal is to get scientists and researchers who develop solutions to team with the private sector and local agencies, “and a major partnership we have right now is with the state of California.”

Currently the satellite project isn’t the only water management resource NASA’s working on, there are many others, said Duane Waliser, chief scientist of the Earth Science and Technology Directorate with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).  JPL is directed by Dr. Charles Elachi, who was the 87th Western Growers Annual Meeting keynote speaker.  The organization is well known for its search for water on Mars, including the successful landing of the Mars Curiosity Rover last year.

JPL is also responsible for developing many of the NASA’s airborne and spaceborne instruments used for measuring various components of the Earth’s water.  “This includes many quantities highly relevant to water availability and irrigation management,” Waliser said.  “For a few years now, we have had instruments capable of providing information on precipitation, groundwater and evaporation, and there are a number of new remote sensing capabilities coming on line that will be either more accurate or provide an entirely new information resource for the agriculture industry.”

In 2014, JPL will launch a satellite, called the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission that will provide much improved estimates of soil moisture from space.  Another altogether new asset being developed for deployment to space (but with an airborne version now) is designed to measure lake and river levels.  “Rather than isolate gauge measurements, this instrument can provide measurements along the whole river, giving information on water levels and streamflow,” Waliser said, adding this is particularly important for areas without the means to provide even one or more isolated gauges.

There is also an airborne snow observatory project that just came online in April, gathering data for an entire watershed region — first flying in conditions without snow, then later when there is a snowpack and comparing the difference — giving a snow depth (and water amount) for the watershed. Waliser said this will include the amount of dust and aerosol on the snow, an important factor that determines the rate of solar absorption and thus the rate at which the snow melts.  Each of these will be “a huge boon to water managers,” he said.

Moreover, as these observations become integrated with forecast and decision support systems, Waliser said it will create a significantly more robust information system to aid farmers and related business sectors in planning from lead times of hours to a season or more.

From groundwater all the way up to the snowpack and precipitation, NASA has assets that have been developed though the past few years that provide a vast amount of information, Waliser said, calling it “groundbreaking.”

He added: “At this point, we have the technology, still maturing in some cases, to monitor all components of Earth’s fresh water.”

For Western Growers, understanding and participating in water solutions is an inherent part of how the association works for its members.  “We want to know what options growers could have in the near or long-term future, because we want to be proactive; we want to provide input while these technologies are being developed and deployed,” Salas said.  “So when they’re finalized and completed, they’re valuable, user friendly and really help agricultural producers address their needs.”

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