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Local farms switch to water-conserving irrigation systems during drought

Courtesy of Dragon Springs Farm

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System,all of San Luis Obispo County is currently experiencing severe drought and 17% of San Luis Obispo County is experiencing exceptional drought.

In California, irrigation systems are a common alternative to relying on rainfall for agriculture. Since many crops require a certain amount of water, farms simply can’t depend on rainwater alone in California’s dry climate.

That’s according to Jerry Rutiz, owner of Rutiz Family Farms outside of Arroyo Grande. Rutiz said that the water he irrigates from groundwater pumping is of lower quality during droughts, and so he has to irrigate his crops more often to keep them healthy.

“You’d think in a drought that you would be watering less often, but we find ourselves having to keep the ground wet even more,” Rutiz said.

Rutiz also said that relying on more irrigation is expensive for local farms like his.

“We have to run our pumps which run on electricity, and the more we run those pumps, the higher our electrical bill is going to be,” Rutiz said. “I would say this year, because of lack of rain, our electrical bills have averaged around $3,000 a month for pumping costs.”

One solution that Rutiz has started implementing is drip irrigation, which is an alternative to sprinklers that drips water directly onto certain crops, instead of watering the entire area.

According to Rutiz, his farm has the potential to save 30% of the water that sprinklers would use.

But how much water drip irrigation can save is dependent on a few other factors, according to Cal Poly Irrigation Training and Research Center engineer Zachary Markow.

“You could put a very, very expensive drip system that gives you good distribution uniformity, but if you don’t manage it properly or you don’t schedule your irrigations based off of the crop requirements, then you might not have an efficient system and you may end up losing water just as much as any other irrigation system,” Markow said.

Markow said the two key practices that can make drip irrigation efficient are distribution uniformity and better irrigation scheduling.

Distribution uniformity refers to how evenly the water is distributed or spread out along the field. Irrigation scheduling can differ depending on which crops require more water and when.

Micro-irrigation is a similar technique to drip irrigation and uses low pressure and flow to irrigate.

Markow said that these methods can not only save water, but also increase crop production.

“Particularly what we see with drip and micro is that farmers get increased yields,” Markow said. “So, for the same amount of water that they supplied in the past, they’re producing more and getting more out of the crop.”

Credit Courtesy of Dragon Springs Farm

Rebecca Nielsen, owner of Dragon Spring Farms in Cambria, recently switched to using micro sprinklers in order to save water among many other efforts.

“Having a drought in California is not exactly a new thing, so we’re pretty conscious when it comes to water, and always have been in our irrigation practices,” Nielsen said.

Some other techniques Nielsen’s farm has adopted include cover-cropping and mulching.

Cover-cropping and mulching retains moisture in the soil by covering the ground and increasing soil fertility.

While these methods are helping Dragon Spring Farms survive during the current drought, Nielsen said they are relatively small when considering the implications of global climate change.

“I mean, they’re sort of like a needle in a haystack, really,” Nielsen said.

According to an August 9 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even with measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global warming is likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would lead to frequent severe droughts among many other life-threatening effects.

“We, as farmers, probably – I don’t know if it’s 10 years, if it’s five years, if it’s 20 years – but, we’ll probably have to rethink the crops that we currently grow unless we’re able to ultimately slow the pace of climate change,” Nielsen said.

Sophie Lincoln is a journalism senior at Cal Poly, working to pursue a career in broadcast news. She is also the News Director for Cal Poly’s KCPR and the Special Sections Editor for Cal Poly’s Mustang News. In her spare time, she likes to hike, go to the beach and spend time with friends.
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