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Monday, Aug 05 2013 11:00 PM

BETH BROOKHART PANDOL: Perception that farmers waste precious water an absurd myth

If you think you are struggling to beat the heat, consider the challenge Kern County farmers face. Water supplies from federal and state water sources are less than adequate. Farmers buying state water are getting just 35 percent of their contract -- but paying for 100 percent. Farmers on federal water projects are receiving either 20 percent or 25 percent. And the Kern River is running at 22 percent of average. Groundwater pumping is going at a furious pace to compensate for shortages and local water banking programs are being tapped to fill the water gap.

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a massive twin tunnel project to bring water from the north to the south but it remains to be seen whether Kern water interests will support that effort. One thing is clear: something major must be done to solve California's water shortages. Still, there are cries from some Northern California interests, environmentalists and others saying the answer to ag water problems is for farmers to conserve more. The inference is that most farmers are wasting water.

But believing that most Kern farmers waste water is like believing most folks dribble a few extra gallons of gas on the ground when filling the tank. Does anyone think that makes sense? One is far more likely to see a spouting lawn sprinkler running gallons of water down a city street or note a neighbor washing a car with a hose gushing willy-nilly down a driveway than they are to see a farmer squandering H2O.

Studies, farm data, years of evaluation of irrigation practices and personal testimony paint a different picture of farm water use. Water, the highest cost resource on a farm, is as fiercely allocated to crops as Ebenezer Scrooge dealt Christmas bonuses.

"Water is money. So if you spend less, it's a win-win. If you are more efficient you spend less money," said grower Steve Vignolo of Vignolo Farms. "It's a huge incentive to save water because it saves money and there's no better incentive than that."

Brian Hockett, District Manager for the North West Kern Resource Conservation District, has been monitoring irrigation systems for decades. His program, "The Mobile Lab," evaluates on-farm irrigation systems for distribution uniformity , or DU, which paints a picture of how efficiently a crop is being irrigated.

In 2012, the Mobile Lab conducted 100 evaluations on 15,936 acres in Kern, examining micro drip, micro sprinkler and permanent under-tree sprinkler systems. The results show that Kern growers are, in general, doing a superb job of irrigating efficiently.

For example, Hockett performed 24 evaluations on 3,309 acres of almonds using micro drip sprinklers and found an average DU of 94 percent. That means 94 percent of the water applied was being used by the crop -- not "wasted" to evapo-transpiration or run-off.

Some 20 evaluations were performed on 4,077 acres of pistachios on micro drip which showed a 92 percent DU. Grapes on micro drip showed an 86 percent DU and cherries on micro sprinkler had an 88 percent DU. Mike Mason, a partner in Supreme Almonds, said almonds growers have moved from aging flood irrigation systems to the more efficient micro sprinkler systems.

"Flood was the shotgun approach. These new irrigation systems are the eye drop approach. You not only increase efficiencies from where you want the water in the root zone but you increase efficiency of fertilizer use which goes straight to the root zone," he said.

Urban water users may use auto-sprinklers on lawns and low-flow showerheads, but few have adopted the high tech water saving methods that farmers generally must adopt. Ismael Diaz, branch manager for Rain for Rent in Bakersfield, sells irrigation systems and said the opportunity to save money drives growers to purchase new systems, sometimes at a cost up to $1500 per acre.

Growers are also increasingly purchasing remote monitoring systems so they can see soil moisture levels in real time and from their smart phones, Diaz said. Growers are able to turn on an irrigation system remotely, based on the needs of the crop.

"Farmers wasting water," he said, "is a myth."

Beth Brookhart Pandol is executive director of the Water Association of Kern County.

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