There is a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” Water has always been the first and most precious resource for any community.
Mark Twain would have seen this along the Mississippi River and the towns and farms it supplied. Then he would observe the role water played in the West when he followed the pioneers out to California and Nevada in the 1860s.
In modern times, no one knows better how vital water is to all of us than farmers. They need to keep their crops alive and flourishing but also be sure they are protecting their water source for all the dry seasons to come.
Farms, both big and small, are becoming examples for harnessing and preserving this life-giving resource.
100 Years of Water Use in Northern California
Farmers have come a long way in their ability to use water wisely. Take a typical family in Northern California. Many from this region have been farming the same 100 acres of land on the Sacramento River for 105 years.
Through three generations, the family has had horses, grapes, apples, nectarines, and apricots on the property. But the main crop has only changed once: peaches until the 1950s, and prunes to the current day.
The current farmers have a particular interest in water conservation. They have educated themselves on the best irrigation methods for crops in this area of the country.
Flooding the Crop
In the beginning, like all the farms in the area, farmers would water their crops with flood irrigation when the ground was dry. A pump would deliver water from a well into one field at a time. Water would stay in the field inside boundaries of built-up earth, and seep down to the roots.
Flood irrigation is simple and requires minimal equipment, but for most crops, it is an inefficient use of water. Often, it used about four acre-feet of water per year.
To use less water and gain a little more precision about where the water went, farmers switched to a system of pipes and sprinklers. Workers would move large metal pipes from one section of the orchard to the next. They hooked the pipes up to the pump and pointed the spray directly onto the trees.
The sprinkler method used about three acre-feet of water per year. A significant improvement, but still not as efficient as they would like to be in a place where water supply is always at risk.
Hose and Drip
Now, the orchards used drip irrigation. The farmers lay flexible black roll pipe directly along the rows of trees, lining up the holes with the tree roots. Water goes only to the trees and is no longer watering all the weeds in the spaces between the rows.
The drip irrigation system has reduced water use to one acre-foot of water per year on some California farms. Combine this simple but efficient system with modern sensors to measure real-time water output, and every single drop of water is put to work.
Using Modern Tools to Measure Water
Finding the right method of water delivery for the land is the first and most significant step to managing your water source wisely. But modern-day farmers don’t stop there.
Tracking Where the Water Is
Farmers across the country use tools installed on their property to understand what the water is doing precisely on their land.
Ground sensors at one, two, three, and four feet deep in the soil track where the water level is below the surface. Ground sensors can be part of a tool such as a DTN ag weather station, which can send current moisture data and weather readings from each field.
A weather station can also tell the farmer what the soil temperature is, and how quickly the water is leaving their land and crops through evapotranspiration.
A pressure bomb can tell a farmer exactly how much water is available to a tree. Just before dawn, he takes a piece of plant and puts it inside the pressure bomb chamber. He then slowly adds pressurized gas until water comes out of the leaf or plant.
If it took too long for the pressure to extract water, the farmer knows his plants are not getting the supply they need. Taking a measurement predawn is usually the most indicative of how much moisture the plant has access to overall. However, farmers will often take a sample midday to learn about the stress level of the plant when the sun is the hottest.
Using Tools to Know the Weather
Every farmer knows the most valuable tool they have in conserving water is understanding the weather patterns in their area. The most efficient irrigation system is still wasting water if they spend one day saturating their crop, then watch the rain falling for free the next.
Organizations like the California Irrigation Management Information System will give access to weather data collected from a system of weather stations throughout a designated area. Farmers can learn things like:
- How much water their kind of crop has used in their area
- What the precipitation pattern has been in the past
- What the weather is likely to do next.
Many farms see value in investing in weather stations directly on their property. Knowing precisely what the crop needs, and whether there will be rain soon, can save the farm thousands of dollars each day. And as more farmers become experts on what the water is doing on their land, they can work together to preserve the water in their area.
Taking Advantage of Water Education in Nebraska
The states of the Great Plains know how precious water can be. Eight states draw their water from the Ogallala Aquifer, stretching across 175,000 square miles. The U.S. Geological Survey states the aquifer level has dropped an average of 16 feet in the last several decades.
When the aquifer was being formed about 10 million years ago, it was fed by runoff into its western edge by the Rockies. That water source has since been closed off by erosion, and the water level depends solely on precipitation.
Farmers are Becoming Experts on Water Behavior
The farmers who depend on the Ogallala Aquifer know the urgency of using the water they have wisely. That’s why 1,500 farmers and cooperators have joined the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network (NAWMN).
The NAWMN is a knowledge-sharing group that tests out water-saving technologies. They share their experiences with types of irrigation, water sensors, erosion-reducing crops, and soil, among many other water-related topics. They are educating each other, and everyone who draws from the Ogallala aquifer will benefit.
Many farms in Nebraska use pivot-irrigation to bring water to their crops. Long pipes on wheels suspended over that crop rotate around a center pivot, creating the circular fields easy to spot from an airplane.
Pivot irrigation has been around for 50 years, but low-pressure nozzles and water sensors in the ground are making them more efficient than ever before.
When the surface of the ground starts to look dry, it’s natural to think it’s time to begin supplementing the crop’s water supply. But if ground sensors are saying the roots are still drinking, the sprinklers can wait a few more days.
A farmer can save about $2,000 for every 2 inches of water he doesn’t use. And that water stays where it is, ready to use on an even drier day.
Backing up Instinct
Strong instinct has always been an indispensable trait of a successful farmer. Farmers who know their land, their crops and their weather will have a much better chance of success. Today’s farmers know that. They still rely on their gut, but thanks to modern technologies, they can make informed decisions better than ever before.