Innovation Helps the Well Run Deep

Featured in the December issue of our magazine.

By Rick Purnell

Confronting norms, challenging existing thinking and incorporating new technology have characterized water pioneers since the first irrigation ditch was dug. Today’s innovators seek to improve ways to discover, use and store water and ensure it is available for future generations.

Professor Fulco Ludwig studies how global changes affect water, food and energy resources and natural ecosystems at Wageningen University and Research in Wageningen, Netherlands. He and his team of Ph.D. and post-doctoral students couple climate and weather models with agricultural models to develop local-scale information systems for farmers worldwide.

“These systems help farmers improve their water and nutrient management,” Ludwig says. “They also help us determine if farmers need to change cropping systems. Plus, we look at the entire value chain and determine how climate change affects risks of different parts of the chain.”

Though technology, such as drones, satellites and GPS, are key to Ludwig’s work, he admits the rate of technological change directed toward farmers’ data can be perceived as too swift.

“We must continue to work on how technology can help farmers make decisions. Currently, a lot of systems give detailed information and farmers struggle with the volume of it,” he says. “The public and private sectors can cooperate to help farmers apply data to individual operations.”

Taking No Drop for Granted

The Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) was created by the 1980 Groundwater Management Act to address declining groundwater levels in the state. ADWR manages and administers surface water and groundwater rights, including drinking and irrigation wells. It also represents Arizona in Colorado River negotiations and in Indian water rights settlements.

To say its conservation work has been successful is an understatement. More than seven million Arizonans used less water in 2016 than in 1957 when the population was just 1.13 million.

“Our focus has been on water management from the beginning,” Jeff Tannler, ADWR area director, statewide active management areas, says. “Ensuring water and permitting recharge projects are part of what we do. The Arizona Water Banking Authority also helps bank Central Arizona Project (CAP) water underground and make it available for future use. So far, more than 10 million acre-feet have been stored within Arizona, some by the bank and some by others. Cities, irrigation districts and other jurisdictions also store water for future use.”

Tannler notes underground storage is simply water that belongs to someone and is added to aquifers throughout the state. It is typically added via natural soaking and constructed basins or injected through individual wells that also remove it when needed. Five active management areas (AMAs) each have conservation requirements for agricultural, municipal and industrial users.

“While requirements vary for each sector, the idea is that everyone is able to contribute to conservation based on what’s most effective to make the AMA’s  management goal,” Tannler says. “In agriculture, there is a conservation program based on a crop efficiency that needs to be reached. This results in an annual allotment of water. ADWR supports growers by also offering a best management practices program that helps them conserve the most water possible.”

Technology plays an increasing role, including computer-aided furrow irrigation design, ROI calculators and an innovative program that helps farmers evaluate how their natural resource use compares to industry averages.

“Weather stations that take instantaneous climate and weather data so that crop and golf course irrigation systems are more efficient also contribute,” he says. “Laser land leveling, level basin irrigation and drip irrigation are examples of how technology helps make every drop count.”

Agriculture Uses Lion's Share of Arizona's Water

Next-Gen Tech Makes Waves

As Arizona advances water conservation, its westward neighbors are on a quest to discover how transformational technology can deliver new water sources. Global Water Innovations, Inc. (GWI), Ventura, Calif., is in final stages of building an integrated system that will affordably purify brackish groundwater to be used for irrigation. It began with a search for a local solution.

“The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Act required growers using water from California basins to form stakeholder groups,” says Jeanette Lombardo, chief strategic officer. “Our basin doesn’t have access to imported water. It is severely overdrafted, and if we don’t develop new water sources, we’ll have to fallow large amounts of productive farmland.”

GWI personnel searched worldwide for innovative new types of water desalination technologies so that new water supplies could be created from brackish groundwater, irrigation tile water runoff, produced water from oil operations and even from coastal seawater intrusion into freshwater aquifers. Whatever it turned out to be, it had to be affordable for agriculture.

“We’re running out of fresh water supplies everywhere, not just California,” CEO Clark Easter says. “In addition, groundwater basins that rely on imported water have serious salt buildup taking place. For example, California’s Central Valley has seven million tons of salt coming in annually from mountain aqueduct water. This is happening around the country, in Australia, India and anywhere imported water is used. In turn, crop productivity is declining. We don’t just have a water shortage problem; we also have a salt-buildup problem.

“We’ve focused on helping agriculture shift to alternate water supplies other than fresh water and on how to get salt out of groundwater basins so that we become sustainable long-term,” he adds.

The brackish groundwater abundant worldwide that Easter’s and Lombardo’s team have as their main focus is higher in dissolved-solids content than freshwater, but not as salty as seawater. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicates brackish groundwater within 3,000 feet below land surface in every state except New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The agency indicates there are 800 years’ worth of brackish groundwater supplies across the U.S.

GWI’s desalination process is solar-powered. It pulls water from a well and treats it on site, where 99 of the water is recovered and dry salts drop and go to a dumpster for disposal. Cleaned water heads directly into irrigation. The first plants are expected online in Ventura County, Calif., in the second quarter of 2019. Easter expects nationwide availability within a year.

Moving the Irrigation Needle

Loren Seaman, 40-year owner of Seaman Crop Consulting in Hugoton, Kan., says new technology continues to improve water use in his region. This includes a recent innovation that turns pivot irrigation into mobile drip irrigation. It helps water get deep into the soil, increasing water infiltration. He also credits proper use of basic soil moisture monitors.

“The real advantage today’s soil moisture probe offers is education that farmers can actually observe what consultants have been advising for years. They can see things on their screens and feel better about shutting off a pivot system without worrying about burning up a field,” he says.

“We’ll continue to advance technology and we’ll develop crops that are more efficient, but each new tool must create ROI to be accepted by farmers,” Seaman adds. “We must also keep in mind that it can take 10 to 15 years for agriculture to incorporate new technology into routine practices. Thus, efforts must focus on realistic short- and long-term outcomes.”

By adapting to climate change, managing existing water supplies, embracing new technology and improving on-farm stewardship, the future of water has untold potential. And, today’s water pioneers appear to have a thirst that won’t be quenched until each opportunity is realized. ■