Monitoring, improved efficiency critical to preserve water resources

Farmers in the Texas High Plains, faced with declining water resources for irrigation and the potential for tighter water use regulations, should take steps now to improve irrigation efficiency.

Technology will help, said industry and university specialists on hand at the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation field day in Muncy.

One of the simplest pieces of equipment irrigation farmers should employ is a water meter, said Jim Conkwright, manager, High Plains Underground Water District No. 1. “Metering water use may not be a popular option, but it makes sense to know how much water you’re using. A lot are using more than they think.”

He said producers should meter the well to get the flow rate, but also recommended metering the system to determine irrigation efficiency.

Conkwright also encouraged any area that was not in a water district to form one. “Some may believe that living outside a district is an advantage because they don’t have pumping regulations. But regulations are coming. If they are not in a district, regulations will come from Austin.”

Joel Hohenberger, chief operating officer with SmartField, an agri tech company out of Lubbock, said the company’s SmartCrop irrigation program helps farmers decide when to irrigate. “The plant is the sensor,” he said. “An infrared device monitors and records plant temperature every minute to create actionable information.”

Data help producers schedule irrigation at the optimum time. The technology combines plant biology and agronomic science to determine crop water demand. Hohenberger said the technology provides “precise” information to help farmers save water or use it more efficiently.

He also mentioned two other SmartField monitoring products: SmartWeather provides growers with accurate weather information from the field. PivotScout, GPS-based technology, gives growers “real time” descriptions of the pivot systems. The technology sends text messages to producers to alert them to irrigation status or problems.

Rick Kellison, project director for TAWC, said an evapotranspiration irrigation scheduling program currently in development, uses a combination of environmental conditions, field conditions, irrigation system, and crop selection to determine irrigation needs.

“Growers would program such field conditions as irrigation system information, crop choices, and soil moisture profile,” Kellison said. “They choose a weather station closest to the field.”

From there the computer program keeps up with rainfall events and crop daily water use rates. “Growers use the information as a checkbook. They start with a specific amount of water in the soil profile and subtract daily crop use. Rain events add to the account and the farmer can use the data to judge when to irrigate.

“We know we will have less water for irrigation in the future,” he said, “so we need to be as efficient as possible.”

Justin Weinheimer, a postdoctoral research associate at Texas Tech, is developing an economic decision tool to help determine the best crop mix for irrigation systems. “This is not an in-season monitoring system,” Weinheimer said. “We’re looking a year in advance of a crop.”

He said the system would evaluate water availability, crop input costs and commodity prices to determine the best use of available water from a particular irrigated field. He said looking at a corn and cotton rotation, for instance, considering prices for each crop and the production costs, could show that planting corn on three quarters of a pivot and irrigating for high yields and planting the rest of the pivot in dryland cotton or the best dryland alternative available might be the most profitable use of the available water.

Crop mix could change as production costs, water availability and commodity prices change, he said. “The economic decision tool considers the maximum profit from available water. A water meter would be an asset. You need to know how much water is available.”

Much of the data in the program would come from the farmer. Weinheimer said the system is “not up and running yet, but is in the process of final programming. We will put it on the TAWC Web site, along with the ET program.”

Kellison said the economic decision tool would go up first, probably in March, with the ET program online in April. “We hope to get feedback from farmers on how to make it better."

Both programs are the result of TAWC grants.

Conkwright said these programs and other efforts across Texas to save water are essential. “People might ask why we need to save water. I have three good reasons. The first is it’s just good stewardship and allows water availability for future generations.

“Second, saving water prolongs the life of aquifers and provides more opportunity for economic viability to rural communities and towns throughout the region. Irrigation agriculture is important to this region.”

He said the third reason is the opportunity and time available to discover new technologies to use water more efficiently.

The TAWC Web site defines the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation as “a partnership of producers, data collection technologies, and collaborating partners that includes industries, universities, and government agencies.

“The project uses on-farm demonstrations of cropping and livestock systems to compare the production practices, technologies, and systems that can maintain individual farm profitability while improving water use efficiency with a goal of extending the life of the Ogallala Aquifer while maintaining the viability of local farms and communities.”

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