Water conservation on the farm
With the current drought situation, water conservation is a topic that has been weighing heavily on Californians’ minds.
Of all the water in the world, 97.2 percent is seawater and only 2.8 percent is fresh water. Of that fresh water, 2.2 percent is glacier, which means 0.6 percent is what’s available for human consumption.
According to Igal Treibach of Water Solutions Technologies, who is also a farmer in Madera County, “We don’t have a lot of fresh water as it is, but what we do have is circulation. In order for us to conserve, we need to also realize what is available and how conservation really works.
“We have checking accounts, we have cash we can use on a regular daily basis, and we have savings accounts for a ‘rainy day,’ for old age, etc. Groundwater is really equivalent to our savings account. Surface water is more like a checking account. If we could have more surface water, it means we wouldn’t have to use as much groundwater. So we wouldn’t have to tap into our savings account as often because we’d have the surface water. And that’s what we’re mismanaging. Were allowing too much of it to escape.”
The Sierra Mountains are also used as a sort of savings account, Treibach added.
The snow falls and it doesn’t melt until spring or summer.
“What we can do with water that falls from the mountains is that we can capture it behind dams so we can regulate a flow of water throughout the year,” he said. “But we’re lacking the ability to manage the rainfall and snowfall because we don’t have enough dams to capture the water. For me, a dam is like having a reservoir from which we can simply release water as we need it. As of now we don’t have a large capacity. We really need more dams in order for us to have better management. That will create more surface water, and then we will require less groundwater. We’re losing groundwater on an ongoing basis because we don’t have surface water to use instead of it.”
One measure farmers have taken to conserve water is switching from using flood irrigation to using other methods such as utilizing micro sprinklers, drip irrigation, monitoring irrigation, sequences in timing (meaning instead of over irrigating your crop or trees one time a week maybe irrigating it less, maybe two or three times a week). This uses less water and less energy.
Farmers have also been looking to grow crops that don’t take as much water to grow such as pomegranates, pistachios and argan (a variety of nuts that grow in the desert).
“Other things we need to spend time and money on is finding ways that we can reuse water,” Treibach said. “We take water that is not usable, and treat it to a usable quality. The country of Israel has now reached the level of going from a water deficit country to where they no longer rely on rain, surface water, or dry water for their domestic needs. They’re now able to produce water (desalinate water from the sea as well as desalinate water inland that is not being used right now), as well as taking domestic water that has been used (tertiary water), and treating it so it can be reused in agriculture. So they are now creating drinking water from seawater and from aquifers that have unusable water, taking the tertiary water that was used, treating it, and extracting over 85 percent of that water and reusing it in agriculture as we speak.”
Madera Ranchos is currently sitting on top of a cone of depression that is being depleted of water. El Niño inspired farmers to come up with the idea that they could potentially drill in 50-foot drywalls and put in perforated pipe so that, when there is water, it will flow directly below ground level and continue to percolate to lower aquifers. As water moves down, it then becomes purified, and recharges the aquifers.
“A few farmers have, in conjunction with the county of Madera, put this project together and we’ve been working on this on an ongoing basis,” Treibach said. “Hopefully we won’t miss the next El Niño and will have really been able to recharge the aquifers.”
With just one project, Treibach was able to save more than 10 million gallons of water in a single winter:
“On my ranch, there is a stream that is dry in the summer but that water runs through during the winter,” Treibach said. “It flows through the ranch beyond the railroad tracks, and we’ve lost that water every year. When it rains, I siphon the water and flood my grape field. We have been able to, in this past winter, distribute on that field 10,000,560 gallons. And that’s from just one small project. These are the kinds of small projects that cost money, but not a lot, and can be done by a lot more people than just me.”