By Stephen Dury
The UK National end meeting was held at Wessex Water, Bath, on 1st September. Dr Ali Browne and myself were joined by DROP practice partners from FWAG SW, RSPB and the Internal Drainage Board, as well as several representatives from Wessex Water and the Environment Agency. The latter included Glenn Watts, who leads a research team of 11 specialising in climate change and resource efficiency, and is the EA’s national lead on climate change impacts and adaptation in the water sector, with a particular focus on water supply and drought management.
One issue that was discussed was the potential for market failure to occur with respect to water use. This can arise from a variety of routes. Farmers often lack information on current and future water availability and their possible options to manage these better. In such a complex area, people may not fully understand or manage the risks they face and policies set in one area can have unexpected impacts in other places.
New technology can provide a solution. An example of this was the Somerset DROP-funded work on irrigation scheduling in the Upper Parrett catchment. Although the total volume of water used for agricultural irrigation is small relative to other uses, irrigation potentially has a large impact on water resources. Potatoes and other vegetables account for the majority of water used for irrigation in England. Water use is consumptive (i.e. water is not returned to the environment in the short term) and is concentrated in the months and years when resources are most constrained. As a result, in some dry summers, irrigation of food crops can be the largest abstractor in some catchments.
FWAG SW worked with potato producers from Branston Ltd to identify opportunities to improve the accuracy of irrigation scheduling, to deliver potential savings in water usage during summer months within the Upper Parrett catchment, when available resources are at greatest risk. Soil Moisture monitoring equipment manufactured by Dacom and supplied by Root Crop Consultancy Limited were installed in 4 fields. Soil Moisture Deficits were monitored throughout the growing season to determine relative dryness within the soil profile to enable the growers to more accurately manage irrigation water applications. This technique was shown to reduce water application, and improve the appearance of potatos, hence saleable yield.
As the scarcity – and hence the cost – of water increases, there is a growing financial imperative for land-based businesses to also invest in water monitoring technologies. This is manifesting itself in California, now in its fourth year of drought, which has been the most intense drought in at least 1,200 years, according to scientists. The drought is spurring entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to sell their technology to such businesses. Companies like Hortau, founded in 2002, use soil tension sensors — combined with data about temperature, weather and humidity — to manage smarter irrigation systems for farmers. These irrigation systems use gathered data to find more efficient times and better ways to use water. Very much like the DROP work described above, in Somerset.
Some farmers aren’t willing (or able) to pay for smart irrigation systems and instead rely on companies that can provide valuable analytics. For example, one company in California uses electricity data from basic smart meters that are installed on water pumps and networks to detect pump leaks. There’s no hardware to install and a farmer receives a text message if there’s an abnormal spike in water use. Another provider of data and analytics software for farmers, OnFarm, launched a new update to its farm data management software, which included new tools for water management for drought-stricken farmers. The software helps farmers manage data like real-time soil moisture, water balance information, irrigation scheduling, water reporting and more.
There are other, more unusual, methods technology companies are using to help reduce water use both directly and indirectly, such as the use of a super absorbent gel polymer called hydrogel that farmers can put in soil ahead of planting seasons. The hydrogel — which is the size of a grain of sand, but can soak up 250 times its weight in water — absorbs excess water during irrigation and releases it as the soil dries out. The gel, developed at Stanford University, can help farmers reduce water use by 20 percent, and cut water bills by 15 percent, and according to the company promoting it doesn’t leave behind bi-products that are environmentally questionable.
What the Califonian drought and DROP have both shown is that the level of water management expertise is variable across land managers and the amount, and complexity, of the available policy and advice information means that they need help making decisions. There is therefore a need to empower farmers to manage their land based upon sound knowledge.