Every Last Drop: A Water Conservation Q&A

February 3, 2014 03:13 AM
Every Last Drop: A Water Conservation Q&A

Water is a precious resource, and perhaps nobody knows that more than Moshe Kirat. This Israeli date farming expert has looked into irrigation methods that combine drip irrigation and soil sensor technology to cut water usage by as much as 30%. That’s essential in a country where it costs $150 a year just to irrigate one date palm.

Kirat shared some of his thoughts on water conservation and the future of water usage in farming in the following question-and-answer session.

Q: How important is water conservation now and in the future?

A: I have been a farmer for nearly 50 years in the Arava desert, an exceptionally arid part of Israel. We get mean annual rainfall of about 3" and it comes in one or two storms. Most of our water comes from wells, so it is always in short supply and very expensive. Every day I’ve had to think about ways of conserving water and the most efficient ways to use it.

Now I’m consulting in the United States, where water is much cheaper and more abundant than in Israel. But I’ve learned from my American colleagues that the cost of water is rising here. I am raising dates in the Coachella Valley. I know that in some areas of California, the amount of water delivered to farmers is being reduced. I believe that in the future, water for farming will become scarcer and more expensive in America too.

I think it’s essential to adapt to this change, starting with increased awareness of the need to conserve water. I have visited many farms in California growing a variety of crops including dates, broccoli and carrots. I have spoken with the farmers and I have noticed that the people in charge of irrigation do not always know how much water they are using! More farmers need to learn about more efficient methods of irrigation and learn to treat water as something to be used carefully.

It’s really a matter of acknowledging that the days of cheap abundant water are going to end. Just like using less oil, it means a fundamental change in how we think about an essential resource.

Q: Irrigation: what new technologies will we be using?

A: Precision is the key. I think we will see increased development and use of technologies that allow farmers to measure the amount of water in the soil, track the growth of crops down to individual trees or plants, automate irrigation and control the amount of water used. That means increased use of sensors (like tensiometers) in the soil and on the plants to measure water as well as nutrients and other factors. By connecting the sensors to wireless data networks we’ll be able to make use of the information gathered, along with meteorological and other data so that water use can be constantly monitored and adjusted as needed. That’s quite common now in some major farming regions of the U.S., but it’s not yet used consistently in arid zone agriculture like date farming.

I’ve found that plants often do better being slightly "thirsty" rather than overwatered. If you increase the need for water and then introduce the water in a slow but steady flow using drip irrigation, the plants seem to make more efficient use of it, using as much as 90% of the water administered. With the use of the types of systems we have developed and tested in Israel, we have been able to make irrigation more of a science.

Of course we’ll have to make increased use of drip irrigation, micro sprinklers and other more accurate and precise water delivery systems. We can’t afford to continue with less efficient techniques like controlled flood irrigation.

Ironically, abundance of water can contribute to overwatering, which can be harmful to plants. Controlled flooding of fields with flood borders causes erosion of the soil and creates clay and mud sediment. This can prevent salt from being flushed away from the roots of plants. But precise watering through drip irrigation ensures the delivery of the proper amount of water to the roots and flushes the salt away.

Q: What will change in how we use water, and what will stay the same as today?

A: I think that everything will have to change in the next ten years. In addition to the changes I have already mentioned, the other key element is to do a better job of sharing information about the best practices for using water.

In Israel, all farmers provide data to the government’s Agricultural Research Organization, which in turn makes information about water use available to everyone. With the increased use of the Internet and computer technology in agriculture, it’s much easier to share this data and knowledge. I think American farmers need to do more of this, whether through informal networks, universities, growers’ associations, government agencies or a combination of all of these. After water, our greatest resource is our own knowledge and experience, and we need to make more efficient use of that too.

I am optimistic about our ability to make these adjustments over time because we have no choice. Farmers are resourceful by nature, and now we must rise to the water challenge as we have done for other challenges in the past.

Moshe Kirat, a date farming expert from Israel, is currently consulting the Kohl Ranch date farm in Thermal, Calif.


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