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May 1, 2015

Technology Has Role to Play in Water Debate

This month’s WG&S deals with the topic of water.  It is a topic on the forefront of everyone’s mind as California is in its fourth consecutive year of drought and the water shortages faced by the state gin up arguments about who is at fault and what constituency will have to “give” (water) in order to weather this lack of storms.

WG Government Affairs teams in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., (who are among the best and brightest water policy experts in the agricultural sector) have to navigate those divisive arguments, punctuated by frequent inaccuracies and misperceptions, as we all work toward more assured long-term water supplies for the three major water users (environment, agriculture and urban) in this state.  But science and technology has a part to play as well.  There are a variety of issues that are ripe for technology in the areas of precision, efficiency, monitoring, alternative sources, etc., that may contribute to agriculture’s constant effort to produce more food using fewer resources and with less waste.

There are a few macro areas where innovation is occurring and technology is being developed.  The first focus is what are the tools that will help growers increase precision and efficiency of irrigation events?  Western Growers wrote about some of the remote technologies we were working to advance in 2013 in an article by Wendy Fink Weber titled “Irrigation Technology.”  Satellite and aerial information is being developed and made accessible to growers in user-friendly formats to assist them in their efforts to understand how much water a plant may need in real time so that more precise and just-in-time scheduling and application of water may occur on the farm.  These tools and technologies progress every day and will soon be widely available and likely commonly used as another data point for important management decisions.  But these technologies don’t directly address the issues of short supply.

California growers also must focus on where their water is coming from and the sustainability or “renewability” of those supplies.  There are several potential sources of water that may be underutilized in the agricultural setting including reclaimed water from industrial and urban settings, recycling water on farm (using water multiple times prior to release) and desalination of  brackish and ocean waters.  The fierce competition for existing water supplies within California points out that all water users should be working more aggressively to perfect our use of these alternative sources.  Greater availability of alternatives reduces the overall pressure on exiting supplies and expands the decision makers options and ability to meet water demands whether in an ag, environmental or urban setting.  Technology may help to knock down some of the barriers that exist in developing these supplies for agriculture.

For example, the reuse of tail water has been discouraged because of (among other things) food safety concerns.  Today there are treatment technologies that may assure safe and high-quality water from tail water.  The challenge might be scaling these technologies (such as zero-valent iron filters) to handle volumes of water needed by ag at an affordable cost.  Already there are areas of the state, as well as other areas of the country, where municipal waste water is reclaimed and repurposed for drinking water and irrigation.  The technology is there. Developing the infrastructure and assuring the market (sometimes it is about clearly communicating the benefits and dispelling the misperceptions about a new technology e.g., GMOs or agricultural chemistry) for foods produced with these waters are the next steps. Similar to reclaimed waters, the technology for desalination exists, but again the challenge is scaling and making these technologies more available.

The other missing piece of the water puzzle is the real-time quantification (monitoring) of the water balance.  It is noteworthy, although not widely discussed, that intense efforts to improve efficiency have sometimes resulted in adverse, unintended environmental consequences.  Take something simple like lining a ditch/canal with concrete.  Doing this may increase the efficiency of your irrigation system—but at the expense of water recharge essential to proximate surface and groundwater bodies.

Agriculture does not get credit for that fraction of water that maintains the environment, but does get blamed when something goes awry.  Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.  New technologies that can help quantify the entire water balance are here.  Using satellite, weather data, remote sensing, in-situ sensing and monitoring information, a complete picture of consumed, discharged and conserved water for a given farm, group of farms or irrigation district can be quantified.  This holistic view can then be used to test alternative scenarios and make informed decisions about the highest use of any of those fractions of water.

The bottom line is that despite the fact that irrigated agriculture is constantly increasing its water efficiencies, it is incumbent upon this sector (and others) to continually strive to improve our systems.  This means examining closely the technologies that will allow us to be more efficient, utilize alternative sources and make informed decisions with the entire water equation in our field of view.  Western Growers is embarking on a more focused effort to advance useful technologies that will save growers time, money and headache.  Water will undoubtedly be an urgent and key focus of this effort and we encourage you to contact us to offer your thoughts and ideas as well as to stay abreast of many of these ongoing efforts.