Innovations in Irrigation

The Irrigation Innovation Consortium is bringing the future of irrigation to us.

By Lana McGee Straub

Groundwater is a precious resource, and irrigators understand this better than most.

As you know, professionals in the groundwater industry like yourself regularly work with irrigators to stretch the supply and keep it working for crops and livestock.

University researchers have also joined the fight for irrigation efficiency.

A group of five university partners and eight founding industry partners formed in 2018 the Irrigation Innovation Consortium, a group spearheading these innovations. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research funds the consortium with the goal of “advancing irrigation automation, remote sensing, data management and decision support, modernization, and management to enhance energy and water use efficiency in irrigated food systems and amenity landscapes across the globe.”

Annually, to advance this directive, the group funds various projects that help water users and irrigators care for the precious resource.

The Consortium is “an alliance between the irrigation industry and university researchers to collaboratively address short-term and long-term needs of the agriculture and landscape irrigation industry,” says the Colorado state lead of the consortium, Reagan M. Waskom, who is also the director of the Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University. “We are focused on the industry primarily as we are in a time of rapid technological transformation and disruption.”

The group funds projects each year that employ innovations focused on the improvements for end-users. “As remote sensing, artificial intelligence, the internet of things (IoT), and big data platforms are improved in other sectors, these can benefit irrigation as well,” he says.

Growing Data

Several projects were chosen this year for their practical applications and innovative solutions to water issues. One of the projects, Connecting Field-Scale Performance to Watershed Health, was awarded to the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance. The grant for the project allows NEWBA to assist the Twin Platte Natural Resource District by providing detailed electrical and water use data to support the TPNRD Data Collection/ Water Saving program. This grant is part of a larger project.

“The TPNRD is working with Grower’s Information Services Cooperative, Olsson Associates Engineering, NEWBA, local irrigators (growers), and the Nebraska Department of Water Resources to provide better water use data to all stakeholders, and to help growers better understand and manage the water they use,” states Dayle McDermitt, Ph.D., the principal investigator of the project. “The wells monitored in this small
group will be tested and fully instrumented to measure all the variables that are needed to understand the relationship between power consumption and well water delivery.”

By evaluating the data, the users can see their actual water usage and obtain a better understanding of how water use practices come into play. This newfound knowledge could even extend to well construction and pump size.

By having a better understanding of their water use efficiency, growers will be able to decide if they need to drill a new well.

Billy Tiller is the CEO of Grower’s Information Services Cooperative and works with McDermitt on the project. “Growers are the ultimate stewards of the land and are producing food, fiber, and feed per unit, with less water than at any other time in history,” he says. “We are working toward the goal of proven sustainability in our practices, and the data will prove this out.”

McDermitt and Tiller feel the project will give groundwater professionals valuable data for maintaining existing irrigation wells as well as finding innovative ways to construct and size future wells. They also think their project will provide shared benefits to protect the natural resource of groundwater.

“When one sector protects and enhances those resources, we all benefit,” McDermitt says. “We believe this project addresses both those ideas in direct and important ways.”

Growing Precision

Another project chosen for 2020 for its innovations in irrigation is a project called A Remote Sensing Approach to Identify Critical Areas in California Orchards for Improving Irrigation Water Management Through Precision Agriculture Technology. And while the project focuses on California, the information gleaned from the research has the potential to benefit growers everywhere.

“The objective of this project is to identify critical areas in California orchards for improving irrigation water management through the application of precision irrigation technology,” states California State University Fresno Project Lead Dilruba Yeasmin, Ph.D. “This project will help the irrigation industry by increasing knowledge about where the orchards are, and which ones might benefit the most from the application of advanced irrigation technologies.”

Yeasmin hopes the project will help orchard growers improve their water use efficiency by adopting improved monitoring technologies.

“Growers are interested in improving their irrigation efficiency, and the irrigation industry is interested in introducing their innovative technology to help in improving irrigation efficiency,” he says. “This project’s outcome will work as a bridge between growers and irrigation industries.”

Yeasmin believes the project will also help groundwater professionals by encouraging growers and professionals to make better well efficiency decisions.

“By having a better understanding of their water use efficiency, growers will be able to decide if they should drill a new well, rehabilitate an old one, or seek out other water sources,” he adds. “Above all, this project will generate helpful information regarding water demand and help the growers be better-informed consumers of the well driller’s services.”

Yeasmin hopes this research will lead to long-term improvement in communication and of water use efficiency among all stakeholders. Upon successful completion of the project, he hopes to follow up with additional plans.

“We have a couple of follow-up projects focusing on UAV and satellite imagery-based plant water status monitoring and correlation analysis with different types of ground sensorbased monitoring,” he says.

Overall, he hopes this project and those that follow will bridge the gap between orchard owners and the irrigation industry to improve future groundwater management.

Growing in Real Time

One last project we will look at is Deployment and Maintenance of Flux Towers in Kansas to Be Integrated to the Parallel 21 Flux Networks to Support Multi-State Real-Time  Evapotranspiration Estimates from Kansas State University. This utilizes newly developed technology to monitor evapotranspiration using flux towers.

It does the monitoring in real time, hoping to provide the entire irrigation industry with reduced costs and improved crop yields and profitability. Flux towers measure the exchange of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and energy between soil, vegetation, and the atmosphere.

“These flux towers in Kansas will be part of a large network of evapotranspiration (ET) monitoring sites, called Parallel 41 Flux Network, across several states in the U.S. Great Plains,” says Kansas State University project lead Edwardo Santos. “These ET observations will be used to calibrate evapotranspiration estimation methods using satellite or sUAV data across several states in the U.S. Great Plains.”

The project is aimed at a broad audience, and Santos hopes the data will be useful to farmers, crop consultants, irrigation specialists, and researchers as well as groundwater professionals.

“Well drillers could use the long-term ET data for well drilling planning . . . meaning the long-term time series of ET for a given crop could help irrigators and well drillers to figure out how much water is needed for a given crop at a specific region,” Santos says. “In addition, these data could be used to feed hydrological models to estimate, for example, the rate of recharge of wells.”

Santos hopes his project will help meet the freshwater irrigation use worldwide.

“Considering that freshwater is a limited resource, we will definitely have to improve agriculture water use efficiency to boost crop yield (as we) face the great challenge to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050.”

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Each of these projects was chosen for funding because it will move the mission of the consortium forward. Waskom sees the water well industry as a great helper in the consortium’s efforts. Innovations in technology require a deep understanding of the industry and what benefits consumers.

“I think we have a natural partnership and overlapping stakeholders and clientele,” he says. “Sustainable groundwater use is going to be one of the key problems facing society in the coming decades.”

The consortium is interested in working with irrigation professionals to help train, educate, and find new methods of outreach in the industry, which will, in turn, benefit the enduser and the public.

The consortium realizes that irrigation will become even more critical to the future of the global food supply.

“We are going to see the confluence of a warmer climate, growing population, and food demand, competition for scarce water supplies, depletion of aquifers all come into play,” Waskom says. “We have no choice but to innovate solutions at all levels.”

More Information
Irrigation Innovation Consortium
Reagan M. Waskom, state lead for Colorado
Director, Colorado Water Center, Colorado State University
reagan.waskom@colostate.edu

Project: Connecting Field Scale Performance to Watershed Health
Dayle K. McDermitt, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor, University of Nebraska, Lincoln
dayle.mcdermitt@unl.edu
waterforfood.nebraska.edu

Project: A Remote Sensing Approach to Identify Critical Areas in California Orchards for Improving Irrigation Water Management Through Precision Agriculture Technology
Dilruba Yeasmin, Ph.D.
Research Scientist, Center for Irrigation Technology and California Water Institute
dyeasmin@csufresno.edu

Project: Deployment and Maintenance of Flux Towers in Kansas to Be Integrated to the Parallel 21 Flux Networks to Support Multi-State Real-Time Evapotranspiration Estimates
Eduardo A. Santos
Associate Professor, Kansas State University
(785) 532-6932


Lana McGee Straub has written for WWJ for more than 15 years and reported for several national publications, including the Washington Post and NPR. She recently attained an MLS in oil, gas, and energy law from the University of Oklahoma College of Law and is a ROW agent. She has worked in the groundwater industry for more than 20 years as the operations manager for Straub Corp. in Stanton, Texas. Connect with Straub on LinkedIn.