May 1, 2015

WATER EFFICIENCY EQUATION: Reducing Use Per Unit Gaining Traction

With California now firmly entrenched in its fourth drought year in a row, the irrigation industry is rightly focused on water efficiency.

Paul McFadden, who is senior sales manager for Toro Micro-Irrigation, El Cajon, CA, said while the focus is clear, that doesn’t always mean using less water.  “It’s an equation: units of input vs. units of output.”

He explained that in the consumer community if you turn off the spigot, the lawn will turn beige.  That could well be an acceptable outcome.  But in agriculture, if you conserve too much and yield decreases, in terms of production there has been no water savings at all.

“Yield has to be included in the (water reduction) equation,” he noted.

McFadden, who is chair of the government affairs committee of the Irrigation Association, which is the major national association representing his segment of the industry, said it is definitely a balancing act between how much water a grower uses and the results he gets from that water.  In the grand scheme of things, it does not serve the whole of society and the economy if the amount of water used results in inefficient use of the water, regardless of how much water the grower has saved.

John Farner, government and public affairs director at the Irrigation Association, was even more direct.  He called “water efficiency” a “tool in your tool box.”  Yield, he noted, has to be the grower’s top priority.  For example, he said if a grower can double his yield per acre without doubling his water usage that’s a good use of water—even though he is using more water on that particular piece of land.

Of course, in a time of drought, Farner agreed there is only a finite amount of water and water conservation has to be considered by everyone.  Toward that goal, McFadden said Toro, and all of the irrigation manufacturers, continue to develop products that are designed to use each ounce of water more efficiently and create a situation where growers can use less water and still maximize their yield.

Inge Bisconer, a colleague of McFadden at Toro as the firm’s technical marketing and sales manager, talked about several new items that Toro is pushing that improve the efficiency of drip irrigation, which is indicative of the irrigation industry continuing to upgrade its products.  For example, the company is offering a new version of its drip tape called Aqua-Traxx FC (full control) which is superior to the firm’s Aqua-Traxx classic.  Not getting too deep into the weeds, Bisconer said it improves the uniformity of the distribution of the water, especially on ground that has a slope, either up or down.  In the firm’s uniformity metrics, Aqua-Traxx FC can provide two to six more units of uniformity.  Because each piece of ground is different, it is difficult to quantify the gained water efficiency, but Bisconer said many growers will find they can recoup their investment in the new tape in just a year or two. She said savings will come in reduced water and energy use and increased yields.

However, all three experts interviewed said there is much room for improvement in agriculture with regard to water efficiency.  Not all growers are efficient users of water.  Bisconer noted that the majority of the nation’s drip irrigation installations are in California.  That means the rest of the country has a lot of crops that can be converted to this more efficient form of watering.  Even in California, the Toro executive said, about half of the eight million acres of irrigated farm land still rely on gravity irrigation.  While some of that is on rice and other crops where flooding is necessary, there is much land that could be converted.  Over the past five years, micro-irrigated crop land in California has grown by 19 percent, but there is still more conversion that can be done.

Bisconer said there are several barriers for growers who haven’t made the conversion, including lack of financing, growing on leased land, or just not willing to adopt a new technique that will require a learning curve.

“We have done a very good job of adopting microirrigation in California,” she said.  “In fact we are going gang busters in both California and the country (where there has been 30 percent growth in drip installations over the last five years).  But there are still a lot of opportunities out there.”

As mentioned, the cost of switching irrigation systems might be the major barrier, but sometimes other factors play a role, such as plant varieties.  “Take the processing tomato industry,” McFadden said.  “Ten years ago, there was very little use of drip irrigation.  Then there were some changes in varieties and now almost the entire industry is on drip and some people are getting 100 tons per acre (twice the average yield of a decade ago).”

So in the processing tomato industry, it was really the plant breeders and the irrigation specialists providing products that in tandem have produced much more efficient water systems, especially when judged on a water unit per yield basis.

McFadden said another aspect of irrigation efficiency getting more plays these days is the design of the irrigation system itself.  When and where to use water is becoming more of a science with more controls and measuring systems allowing for a better understanding of the use, which leads to greater efficiency.  While cost is always a factor in switching out a system, McFadden said if an irrigation system is more than five years old, it is probably not as efficient as it could be.  There have been technology improvements that weren’t available just a few years ago.

Bisconer said for much of the vegetable industry, and even tree crops, drip tape is typically changed every year or every couple of years so most users can upgrade to better-quality tape without much difficulty.  If a grower is operating with buried tape that is designed to last for many years, the cost of upgrading would be much more expensive.

McFadden also noted the industry itself has become very sophisticated and there is a lot of help out there for growers who are looking for better options.  There are several commercial companies that offer much technological help and processors and buyers of raw product also can provide help.  “For example, JR Simplot (one of the largest agribusiness firms in the nation) has a water systems group designed to give growers help.”

It is increasingly important to demonstrate that you are optimizing your use of water not just in the policy or public arena but also with those you may be selling products to.  “Water efficiency has been a focal point of many of the buyers’ sustainability surveys and questionnaires to their suppliers,” said Hank Giclas, senior vice president of science, technology and strategic planning for Western Growers.  “Buyers are using these tools to develop information about the long-term viability and consistency of supplies and how they might assist their suppliers and/or shore up alternate sources.”

Farner said California is leading the way when it comes to “embracing technology” and adopting more water-efficient methods.  He said the Irrigation Association is attempting to help in many ways including arguing for relaxing regulations for the use of drones in mapping cropland for irrigation purposes.

Of course, he also noted there are some inherent problems, even in California, that work against water efficiency.  He said growers are operating with 21st century technology and a 19th century conveyance infrastructure system.  He noted there are many hurdles to increased water efficiency and said many growers are inefficient.  But he indicated that the most inefficient part of the whole system is how the water is stored and delivered to the farms, businesses and houses throughout the state.

If there is an upside to the four year drought, government affairs specialist Farner said it might be that politicians are beginning to focus more attention on the issue and seem to have a deeper understanding.  He noted that in Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent executive order there was a clear understanding of the sacrifices agriculture has had to endure over the last several years, as the governor largely exempted the industry from the cutback provision.  McFadden quantified those sacrifices stating that in the Westlands Water District alone 500,000 acres were fallowed last year.

Farner said Congress is beginning to take notice.  “For a long time they saw this as just a California problem, but people are starting to see that this is a national concern.  That’s the kind of debate we need.”

He is hopeful that increased debate and more light shined on the problem will lead to some solutions that give growers more water.  Of course, tied up in that debate is the Endangered Species Act and the goal by agriculture to relax some of those rules and consider the farmer’s needs as well as the needs of wildlife and fish.

Farner said when it comes to the ESA, it is difficult to envision Congress acting.  “It’s so political,” he understated.

While the Irrigation Association executive is happy to see Congress focus on water and water use, he said the association is not in favor of mandates on any segment of the industry.  Besides the agricultural industry, IA members also serve the turf and landscape side of the business.

For production agriculture, it is difficult to see lawns thriving while crops wither.  While Farner acknowledges that “we live in a world of mandates” and they may be inevitable as drought conditions persist, he noted that IA would rather see mandates based on outcomes rather than prescriptive in nature.