Saving Water for the Future

Published On: April 19, 2021By Categories: Features, Irrigation

The Irrigation Innovation Consortium is funding research for water conservation.

By Lana McGee Straub, RL

The Irrigation Innovation Consortium (IIC) is a Fort Collins, Colorado-based foundation focused on irrigation practices that save water and energy. With funding from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), it awards grants each year to research projects that accelerate the development of water conservation technologies.

According to IIC and FFAR, these winning projects “were selected through a competitive review process that weighed and prioritized projects according to their innovation, scientific merit, inter-institutional collaboration, outreach plans, and potential for impact.

Water Well Journal introduced readers to the IIC in its May 2020 issue and detailed some of the projects that won grants a year ago. The consortium this year awarded more than $500,000 in grants which were matched by university and industry collaborators spreading almost a million dollars over seven projects.

Most of the winning projects focused on innovations in the nation’s biggest aquifer—the Ogalala Aquifer. The projects vary in nature, some focusing on water conservation in crop production or maintaining watershed health, while others focus on consumer use of water in golf courses and city beautification.

In all of them, though, researchers are partnering with industry leaders in irrigation to find new and innovative means to conserve water. Here is some more information on the 2021 winners.

Using Less Water for Crops

Three projects focus on improving water use for irrigation in the Ogallala Aquifer, one in Texas on the High Plains and two in Nebraska on the Great Plains. All focus on reducing water use through integrating smart irrigation technologies.

Charles Rush, Ph.D., is a senior regents fellow with the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Amarillo, Texas. His team is partnering with Dragon-Line, Valmont Industries, and Dynamax Inc. to study the integration of existing irrigation technologies into a new system.

The project is called “Integration of Precision Mobile Drip and Variable Rate Irrigation Technologies for Specialty Crop Vegetable Production.” The research will focus on center pivot irrigation cropping systems in the High Plains and examine mobile drip and variable rate irrigation technologies.

Findings from Rush’s research could benefit groundwater professionals across the United States help find new water saving solutions for their irrigation customers. Dragon-Line is an orange mobile drip irrigation manufacturer. Its tubing attaches to the pivot and drops down into the ground beds, allowing for a drip-irrigation effect. Valmont provides advanced pivot irrigation technology and Dynamax has technology that examines plant water uptake.

Derek Heeren, Ph.D., PE, is an associate professor and irrigation engineer as well as a water and food global institute faculty fellow in the biological systems engineering department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A project he is spearheading is “Towards Pivot Automation with Proximal Sensing for Maize and Soybean in the Great Plains.”

In it, he also partners with Valmont Industries and focuses on conditions that necessitate irrigation. They are examining the crop health and stress of maize and soybean plants and the accuracy of irrigation sensors to develop new thresholds that trigger irrigation events. Valmont Industries provides many products and solutions for irrigation management.

The same information that can help growers be profitable while managing for sustainability also gives water managers tools to better manage and maintain our water resources.

Findings from Heeren’s research could benefit groundwater professionals by giving them insights into new technologies that could help their customers plan their irrigation strategy based on crop uptake, climate conditions, and water availability.

Trenton Franz, assistant professor of hydrogeophysics at the school of natural resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a Robert B. Daugherty water for food institute fellow and heads the ecohydrology and hydrogeophysics science lab, “studying the movement of water through dryland and agricultural ecosystems around the globe.” The winning project he is leading is called “Improved Irrigation Scheduling Combining Soil Water Supply and Atmospheric Evaporative Demand.”

Industry partners working with Franz include: Aspiring Universe Corp., Arable Lab, Hydrolnnova LLC, Corteva Agriscience, and Planet Labs Inc. Franz’s research is looking at various common irrigation practices and examining soil water supply and atmospheric evaporative demand to determine improved irrigation scheduling.

Aspiring Universe provides geospatial farming data. Arable Lab has cellular-connected remote technology that “collects and synthesizes infield climate and plant data to produce actionable insights.” Corteva Agriscience provides seed and crop protection products as well as digital tools to give “illuminating insights” into the farming operation. Planet Labs is an Earth imaging company whose goal is to image the entire planet and monitor trends.

Findings from Franz’s research could benefit groundwater professionals because it would enable them to advise their clients on their irrigation systems and implement new technologies that may not be currently utilized such as VFDs and transducers to measure their water use and control the lifecycle of their pumps.

Improving Watershed Health

Dayle McDermitt, adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is also the vice chair of the Nebraska Water Balance Alliance (NEWBA). NEWBA’s goal is to create water for generations to come as it “encourages practical watershed management through team-based approaches to technology, practice, and community.”

McDermitt’s project is called “Connecting Field-Scale Performance to Watershed Health: The Added Power of Sharing Data.” The research focuses on watershed health by examining how growers are using water and how water usage affects the watershed as a whole.

McDermitt received funding in 2020 for this project as well. According to the FFAR, “the information generated from this research is providing irrigators and watershed managers with knowledge of real-time water use to support optimal data-based management decisions.”

McDermitt is partnering with the Grower Information Services Cooperative in Lubbock, Texas. The mission of the cooperative is to “be the farmer-friendly place to cultivate digital strategies, maximize individual growers’ success, and collectively level the growing field for U.S. agriculture to better fulfill the world’s growing demands.”

In an interview with WWJ, contributors to the project stated the research will help guide decisions made by irrigators, groundwater professionals, and watershed managers. “The same information that can help growers be profitable while managing for sustainability also gives water managers tools to better manage and maintain our water resources with more accurate real-time data.”

Stakeholders, which includes groundwater professionals, can use this data to make equipment decisions and create plans that maximize water and electricity efficiency.

Saving Water with Alternative Energy

Using alternative energy is a new buzzword throughout the country. Jordan Macknick is the lead energy-water-land analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and a member of the Strategic Energy Analysis Center’s systems modeling team. His team is utilizing solar panels for irrigation on a Colorado farm. The project is called “Quantifying Irrigation Water Savings from Multiple Agrivoltaics Configurations.”

Macknick’s research shows how agriculture and solar panels can use the same land sources. His team has partnered with Jack’s Solar Garden, a group with the vision of putting “valuable research into the public sphere on co-locating solar panels with agriculture called agrivoltaics.”

According to the NREL website, agrivoltaics is the practice of locating solar panels near plants which provides multiple benefits—it lowers the overheating of the solar panels while pulling beneficial sunlight and heat to the plants, but since the plants are located below the solar panels, it reduces the plants’ exposure to direct sunlight, which helps the plants retain water.

Over the past two decades, solar technology has been moving faster and faster in the groundwater industry. Macknick’s research gives groundwater professionals another source to discuss this type of technology with their customers and determine whether the environmental conditions exist to utilize alternative energy sources to power the pumps for their irrigation while placing the plants below these energy sources and helping the plants retain their moisture.

Recycling and Repurposing Irrigation Materials

Plastic waste is becoming more and more prevalent in our society and the question of what to do with that waste needs to be answered. Charles Hillyer, Ph.D., is the director at the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University, Fresno. His project, “Closing the Loop on Sustainable Plasticulture,” focuses on using recycle, drip tape and drip lines for use with perennial plantings of fruit and nut trees.

Hillyer’s team is partnering with Jain Irrigation and Dow Chemical to determine the economic and technical feasibility of utilizing the recycled products. Repurposing these types of items could be an inspiring opportunity for groundwater professionals and their irrigation customers to create dialogue with local cities and municipalities of how they could recycle old equipment into new uses in parks or recreation areas.

Reducing the Bogey of Water Use at Golf Courses

Golf courses often get a bad reputation as a place that unnecessarily wastes water. Chase Shaw is assistant professor in the department of soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M University. Shaw’s project is called “Precision Irrigation on Golf Course Fairways Using Soil Moisture Sensor and Mapping Technologies.”

In the research, he and his team hope to involve many golf course superintendents nationwide to determine their willingness to apply different water management strategies to reduce water use on the courses. Shaw hopes to show how precision irrigation will use less water and produce less of an environmental impact. Shaw’s industry partners are The Toro Co. and the United States Golf Association.

Groundwater professionals could benefit from Shaw’s research by starting a conversation with customers who have golf courses, parks, or other recreational areas. Often these areas come under fire, especially in drought-stricken areas. Shaw’s research could potentially provide some insights into methodologies that could be explored so that people can continue to enjoy recreational areas without environmental backlash.

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Lana McGee Straub, RL, has written for WWJ for more than 15 years and reported for several national publications, including the Washington Post and NPR. She has 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.

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