Dry ground from drought
The University of California and Israel's research organization will work together on agricultural research that focuses largely on drought and irrigation.

Drought always just a year away in California

Among the unknowns for the months ahead in California is whether this will, in fact, be a dry year. Statewide, reservoirs are near 100 percent of average, but not at 100 percent of capacity. Demands in the dairy industry for lower cost feeds have meant double and triple cropping on what had been cotton land.

Among the unknowns for the months ahead in California is whether this will, in fact, be a dry year.

Statewide, reservoirs are near 100 percent of average, but not at 100 percent of capacity.

Demands in the dairy industry for lower cost feeds have meant double and triple cropping on what had been cotton land.

A just-in-case workshop on drought in Fresno included topics that ranged from eye-in-the-sky satellites that feed images to water wonks and growers to the nitty-gritty of maintaining sand media filters.

Speakers early on made it clear that among the unknowns for the months ahead is whether this will, in fact, be a dry year.

The fact that it was raining just before the Drought Preparedness Workshop got underway at Fresno State University prompted a comment on that irony from one of the speakers.

“I love to have a drought preparedness workshop because it always seems to rain when we hold these things; so that’s a good thing,” said Ron Jacobsma, general manager of the Friant Water Authority.

The event was sponsored by the California Department of Water Resources and the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State.

Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the Department of Water Resources, said that “no significant forecast” on how the water year will shape up will be available until the end of January, given that half the of the state’s precipitation falls between December and February.

Jones said a dozen storms – or storm projections that fizzle – can characterize the water year in California.

“Last year was dry, and we can’t say with any certainty what the new water year is going to be like,” she said, pointing out that storms in late November and early December, most notably in Northern California, “helped tip the balance between a wet and dry year.”

Jones said that, statewide, reservoirs are near 100 percent of average, but not at 100 percent of capacity, and the early storms helped replenish soil moisture, especially in Northern California.

A rain shortfall could have rangeland grazing impacts, she said.

 Jacobsma said, “We have a lot of room in the reservoirs, so let it rain, let it snow.”

The Friant Water Authority provides water to 30 irrigation districts in addition to municipalities that include Fresno, Orange Cove and Lindsay. It serves 15,000 farmers on 1.2 million acres of the east side of the valley.

Jacobsma said challenges include efforts to reestablish a San Joaquin River salmon fishery.

He said demands in the dairy industry for lower cost feeds have meant double and triple cropping on what had been cotton land, meaning a move from using 2.5 to 3 acre feet of water to “4, 5, maybe even 6” acre feet.

Water savings

The district tracks groundwater levels and works to recharge the underground supply. But Jacobsma said challenges there include the prospect of taking land out of production and turning it into a recharge basin. That means “buying $20,000 an acre land and getting three months of utility out of it to put water in the ground,” he said.

He said that steps being taken by growers to cut costs for water delivery include moving to variable speed pumps and running equipment at times when it costs less. But that latter step, he said, is not a simple solution because delivering water is something that cannot be done easily when systems are started and stopped from time to time.

Some speakers offered practical, down to earth suggestions for just-in-case drought preparations. Others talked of online advancements that make responses to drought easier.

They included:

• Bill Green, education manager with the Center for Irrigation Technology, advised that growers test their pumps to be sure they are up and running in case – and before – a hot spell arrives.

“You may need it this year,” he said.

Green recalled his own frustration when he sought to run his pumps for frost protection and found that a nest of mice in the motor head frustrated that effort.

Green also recommended growers have their pumps tested for efficiency through a program offered through Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (Details available at www.pumpefficiency.org.)

He explained how pumps can be measured for efficiency and recommended regular maintenance rather than “reactive” maintenance.

• Kaomine Vang, project manager at the Center for Irrigation Technology, talked about Wateright, an online system for water savings developed by the center with support from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources.

At the website www.wateright.org, visitors can find tutorials on topics that include water management, furrow irrigation and sprinkler and micro irrigation. They can plug in data on their specific crops, their form of irrigation and soil type.

The Wateright system can be used by homeowners, commercial turf growers or those in agriculture. 

Crop coefficients are used with evapotranspiration data that comes through the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS).

• Kent Frame, program manager with the California Department of Water Resources, discussed CIMIS and how it has helped cut water use.

Studies have shown increased quality and yields for crops in which CIMIS is used and reductions of about 10 percent in applied water. (Details available at www.cimis.water.ca.gov/.)

About 140 CIMIS stations statewide capture data that includes evapotranspiration rates and other information that can be delivered through means that include mobile devices.

Frame conceded there are “spatial data gaps” within the field of stations, and efforts are being made to close those gaps with “remotely sensed data.”

Satellite, irrigation, EQIP

• Forrest Melton, senior research scientist with the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., talked of mapping crop water requirements and fallowed area with satellite observations and CIMIS data.

Melton said his efforts, combined with those of partners that include the University of California and CIMIS, are aimed at making it easier for growers to get data.

His research efforts include seeing how on-the-ground observations during field trials match those from satellites in space.

• Dean Best, sales manager for the south San Joaquin Valley for Netafim, discussed irrigation system maintenance.

He talked of different filter types, including sand media filters. Among his advice in that regard was that it’s wise to take a coffee can of sand when it first goes into the filter, “set that in the shop” and compare it to what is in the filter over time as the sand wears down and loses its efficacy.

Best advised against using gypsum in filters because it can solidify.

He recommends placing gauges every year and says it is best to keep control boxes closed and latched so that debris – and critters – do not get inside.

• Fresno District Conservationist Dave Durham, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, talked of funding available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other federal programs.

He referred participants to http://www.ca.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/ for information on applying for assistance.

Durham emphasized that applicants should apply early, make sure their records are up to date before contacting the Farm Service Agency, and work on necessary permits and design.

• Dane Matthews, senior engineering geologist with the California Department of Water Resources, discussed statewide groundwater elevation monitoring. The project looks at 515 alluvial basins and sub basins. The first report on findings came out Jan. 1, 2012, and the next will be in January 2015.

Matthews said groundwater provides 30 percent to 40 percent of the state’s water supply.

Data on the monitoring effort is available through www.water.ca.gov/groundwater/casgem.

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