Valley farmers who missed out on a special pilot program that provided a limited number of participating farmers the chance to purchase surge valves in July at a significantly reduced price will have another opportunity to take advantage of a grant-funded program Thursday, Nov. 14, during a special Surge Valve Field Day at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Annex Farm in Mercedes.
The event gets underway at 10 a.m. when the efficiency of the surge valve irrigation system is demonstrated by representatives of the Harlingen Irrigation District and Texas AgriLife technicians. At the end of the demonstration participants can purchase surge valves at a reduced grant price, made possible by a WaterSMART grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley who attend the demonstration will learn about the water-saving capacity of surge irrigation on a number of different row crops. The cost of surge valves and controllers (about $2,000 for the package) has deterred many farmers from purchasing the valves and switching to a new irrigation practice. The relatively low cost of irrigation water and relatively narrow profit margins have contributed to that reluctance, according to Valley irrigation officials.
However, officials at the Rio Grande Valley Water Authority (RGRWA) say recent field studies in the Valley have shown that surge irrigation can save up to 52 percent of water use on certain crops. With the ongoing drought, limited water allocations, the current Mexican water deficit, and expectations of volumetric water pricing, growing good crops with less water will become more important to Valley farmers.
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The Surge Valve Cooperative, a program of the RGRWA, is making the water-saving equipment available to growers at a cost of $300 each. The grant-funded program offers a total of 64 surge valves on a first-come, first-serve basis, with a limit of two per grower.
Growers who understand the efficiency of surge irrigation have already signed on to be part of the Surge Valve Co-op. Others are invited to the demonstration this week to see for themselves.
Harlingen Irrigation District's Tom McLemore says while surge valves have been around for a long time, until recently the cost of the valves and the ability to access and purchase irrigation water at affordable prices have kept many growers from taking a great interest in any new irrigation technology.
But as water becomes harder and more expensive to get, these technologies, including surge valves, are gaining popularity as the cost of investment versus the cost and availability of water resources begins to balance out.
Study indicates technology's value
In 2011, the Texas A&M University's Department of Agricultural Economics and Texas AgriLife Extension Service conducted a comprehensive study in the Lower Rio Grande Valley titled the Agricultural Water Conservation Demonstration Initiative (ADI project), a multi-faceted effort involving the Texas Water Development Board, the Harlingen Irrigation District, South Texas agricultural producers, Texas AgriLife Extension (Extension) Service, and other agencies.
It was designed to demonstrate state-of-the-art water distribution network management and on-farm, cost-effective irrigation technologies to maximize surface water use efficiency.
In 2010, as part of the larger study, a furrow vs. surge valve technology demonstration, associated with the ADI project, was completed to analyze potential water application and irrigation cost scenarios in cotton production.
At the time, irrigation water sold to growers was $1.17 per acre-inch or $14 per acre-foot. The cost of surge valves at the time of the study was approximately $1,800.00. The results of the project concluded that while the investment required by growers to acquire and use surge valves in their cotton fields would have been minimally higher than purchasing water at prevailing prices, and considering irrigation water was readily available in 2010, only a few growers expressed interest in investing and converting to surge valve technology at that time.
But the study, conducted by Texas A&M Extension specialists Mac Young, Steven Klose and Valorie Reynolds, correctly predicted that water would become harder to acquire and water prices would rise. They concluded that the cost of purchasing and changing over to surge valve irrigation would not provide an immediate cost benefit compared to traditional furrow irrigation methods, but it would help conserve water. They further concluded that a time was coming, as water supplies diminished and the cost of water increased, when converting to surge valve technology would not only be cost efficient, but would also lower overall production costs.
According to water officials in the Valley, that time has arrived.
More information and details about the demonstration and the grant program, producers can contact representatives at RGRWA.org  and TexasAWE.org , or by calling 956-423-7015 and asking for Heather.