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“We think this is a good alternative to farmers drying their farms and selling their water rights.”
For José L. Chávez, irrigating crops in water-scarce areas like Colorado is more science than art.
The Colorado State University professor of civil and environmental engineering specializes in an emerging area known as “precision irrigation.” Chávez collects and analyzes a wealth of real-time data – ground-, airborne-, and satellite-based multispectral information – gathered by remote sensors to help farmers determine when and how much to irrigate crops throughout their growing cycles.
The goal is to conserve water by taking the guesswork out of irrigation.
“It’s about getting more crop per drop,” said Chávez. “By using technology and data, we can identify how much water is really needed to optimize plant growth and yields. We think this will help reduce water usage because farmers won’t have to estimate or irrigate based on fixed amounts, rigid frequency, or historical water used.”
Chávez’s research has gained traction with both industry and government.
He has been working since 2010 with Colorado-based Regenesis Management Group to collect data on a corn field in Greeley, in cooperation with Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Station’s Limited Irrigation Research Farm (LIRF).
Regenesis plans to incorporate the results into a software tool it is developing to help farmers make economic-based decisions about crop, soil, and irrigation management.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board also has awarded Chávez funding to demonstrate the concept of limited irrigation – using less water than demanded by the crop at a certain development stage – during field days in the summer of 2014 and 2015 and a workshop in Fort Collins in 2015.
The idea is to educate farmers about how to use technology, data, and computer models to irrigate only when needed, and document how much water is used. Farmers could then lease the portion of their irrigation water rights their crops didn’t use to municipalities and other users in the state.
“We think this is a good alternative to farmers drying their farms and selling their water rights,” Chávez said. “They still have enough water to raise crops, and municipalities have access to more water.”