As water becomes increasingly scarce in the American West, a group of university and industry partners has been pursuing innovations in the largest use of this key resource: agricultural irrigation.
For almost five years, the Irrigation Innovation Consortium has supported industry-university collaboration to improve irrigation technologies, encourage their adoption and boost effective water management in agricultural and landscape contexts.
The history of IIC
A $5 million grant from the nonprofit Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research in 2018 has underpinned the consortium’s research and engagement activities. IIC has selected projects proposed through annual competitive research calls to support the co-development and testing of technologies, decision support systems, and advanced irrigation management strategies. Public and private partners bring matching support to their projects, resulting in a total investment of over $10 million in IIC research and outreach activities. More recently, IIC has also been able to leverage knowledge gains and its network to attract additional state and federal funding to expand its reach and impact.
The IIC, headquartered at Colorado State University, includes four other land-grant universities as founding members: the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kansas State University, Texas A&M University, and California State University-Fresno. Original founding industry partners are Aqua Engineering, Irrigation Association, JAIN Irrigation Inc, LI-COR, CSU STRATA, Lindsay Corporation, Northern Water Conservation District, Valmont Industries and Rubicon Water.
Over time, IIC’s network has grown to include more than 165 researchers, research technicians and students, and more than 50 private companies and public entities. (See IIC’s current partner list here)
“IIC-supported research results and outreach efforts are contributing to growing interest in the critical role of irrigation and the potential to scale impact and use of advanced management tools and strategies by working with organizations like the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, the Irrigation Association, local water utilities and the California Almond Board,” said Amy Kremen, IIC’s associate director. Kremen has represented Colorado State University on behalf of multi-institution, multi-state projects focused on advancing knowledge and practice related to irrigation management since 2016, initially with the USDA-NIFA funded Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project based at CSU and the Colorado Master Irrigator program, before joining the IIC.
“The audience for the findings and outcomes of IIC’s work is large and growing,” Kremen said. “It’s an exciting space to be in, because of relationships, mutual understanding and expertise being forged in response to great need.”
Innovation in the nick of time
Much of IIC’s research has focused on addressing water related challenges of the American West. Here, agricultural irrigation is the largest water user, and pressure to reduce water use is growing as communities navigate sustained drought and decreased supplies of surface and groundwater.
“Water scarcity, existing or impending water regulation, hotter and drier climate trends – many factors are driving technological and social innovation today,” Kremen said. “We must use all the tools at our disposal, harnessing all of the ingenuity, expertise and systems knowledge available if we are to sustain and support community quality of life and stable agricultural value chains.”
Overcoming the adoption gap
With many tech companies jumping into the agricultural and landscape water management space, there’s a lot of excitement but often a lack of clarity for end users. The learning curve required to use a new tool effectively – and the associated costs – often are still too high, and the potential benefits of using them are not necessarily obvious.
While there’s a great need and opportunity to update irrigation systems and optimize irrigation management, getting that kind of change is hard, Kremen said. “You can consider what leads to shifts in irrigation management as having four parts, with interconnected technical, practical, economic and social aspects, including the evolving but ever-present policy and political context. Tools, data and training need to address those things together. That’s a big ask, but that’s when meaningful change happens.”
At its core, IIC’s mission to “advance adoption” of innovative irrigation tools and strategies has meant finding ways to make data actionable, guiding irrigation application timing and amounts.
The following snapshots highlight some contributions of CSU researchers within IIC’s overall portfolio of projects and how their work is supporting new directions in research and outreach.
IIC research project highlights
– Vertical irrigation solutions with machine learning (2019)
Industry partner: Vertical Irrigation, LLC
Principal investigator: Joshua Craver, assistant professor, Controlled Environment Horticulture, CSU
Lighting accounts for 40%-60% of vertical agriculture irrigation system input costs, limiting sustainability and profitability. To address this issue, Joshua Craver led an IIC-supported project to evaluate using varying intensities of supplemental far-red light in microgreens production.
“Our lab has conducted extensive research on light-emitting diode (LED) lighting applications with the goal of enhancing crop yield and quality, while also improving energy and water use efficiency. With the aid of new facilities such as the Controlled Environment Horticulture Research Lab in the Terra Building on the CSU Spur campus, we look forward to sharing these advancements in modern agriculture technology with the public,” Craver said.
– Quantifying irrigation water savings of agrivoltaics, 2021 (active project)
University partners: Colorado State University, University of Arizona, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
Industry partners: Jack’s Solar Garden
Principal investigator: Jordan Macknick, Lead Energy-Water-Land Analyst, NREL
“Agrivoltaics” as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy, refers to “the simultaneous use of land for both agriculture and photovoltaic power generation.”
This IIC-supported project aspires to better understand irrigation water requirements and potential irrigation savings for different crops grown under and around solar panels.
For this project, researchers are collaborating with Jack’s Solar Garden, a 24-acre commercial agrivoltaics research site in Longmont that combines a community garden with a 1.2-megawatt solar array. CSU has since initiated additional related research at the site and at the new Terra building on the CSU Spur campus.
“You can go visit Jack’s and see how agrivoltaics is working in a pollinator habitat, in a grazed habitat, and in an intensive vegetable production setting,” co-PI Meagan Schipanski, assistant professor in Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU “It’s an exciting, comprehensive pilot that will provide important information for land managers, solar developers and policymakers throughout Colorado and beyond.”
In a different project, CSU Water Resources Specialist Joel Schneekloth worked with engineer Lee Wheeler to develop a new Excel-based irrigation and pumping plant efficiency calculator.
This tool can be used to flag potential pump operation and center pivot water delivery inefficiencies, signaling a need for in-depth system audits or repairs. The Electric Power Research Institute and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. electric utility served as industry partners providing support for this project.
“The value of sophisticated, newer precision management technologies can’t be realized if an irrigation system is not operating according to system specifications,” Kremen said. “Irrigation system audits may seem less alluring than new widgets and decision support dashboards, but the fact of the matter is improving fundamentals of irrigation system performance could result in important water and energy savings for water in the West.”
The team performed center pivot audits to test the calculator’s results, finding potential energy savings of up to 27%. This free calculator can be used to encourage irrigators to proactively evaluate and prioritize irrigation system performance rather than treating inefficiencies as problems that need solving when something breaks or clogs or is clearly not working right. Schneekloth has since collaborated with the Colorado Master Irrigator program to help train irrigators to use the calculator.
– Regional LoRa Networks to Improve High Elevation Flood Irrigation Water Management
Industry partners: Trout Unlimited, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Paige Wireless
In this project, Trout Unlimited is working with agricultural partners, CSU Extension, CSU’s Water Quality Lab and IIC to demonstrate using LoRa technology, which involves radio frequency modulation for low-power, long-range transfer of data to control automated check structures.
Funded through a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant, this project aims to help historically underserved producers using traditional gravity-driven water distribution ditches, making it possible to remotely control water delivery when it is needed.
For this project, Trout Unlimited is working with eight producers operating above 5,500 feet elevation in Colorado’s Gunnison and Rio Grande River Basins. The team is deploying LoRa networks and timer-automated water restriction panels to test and demonstrate their potential as low-cost, high-impact tools. This set-up will enable producers to incorporate real-time remotely monitored data into their daily operations, reducing their labor costs and optimizing production outcomes, while also maintaining habitat and hydrologic benefits provided by flood irrigation.
Payment scenarios and practice application guidance will be developed using this research to help inform and update NRCS’s irrigation water management practice standards.
“With many farmers working off-farm jobs, being able to monitor and control these flows remotely in real time should offer significant time and cost savings,” said Perry Cabot, a research scientist at the Western Colorado Research Center who specializes in irrigation and water resources management.
One of the most significant advantages of this approach is that the technology uses an open-source connectivity platform that can help devices talk to one another in areas where Wi-Fi or broadband may not be available, Cabot said.
“Addressing the lack of reliable connectivity gaps for irrigators in rural areas all across the West is essential for advancing irrigation management,” he said.
Delivering water when crops need it
– Irrigation scheduling with remote sensing under full- and deficit-irrigation (2019)
Industry partner: Colorado Corn
Principal investigators: Allan Andales, IIC principal investigator and Extension irrigation specialist, CSU
Measuring evapotranspiration helps farmers evaluate water loss from the root zone and is a critical measurement for irrigation decisions. However, variable surface and management conditions complicate irrigation decision-making.
The Water Irrigation Scheduler for Efficient Application (WISE) is a cloud-based irrigation scheduling tool that estimates crop evapotranspiration used to calculate irrigation water requirements. WISE was developed at CSU by Allan Andales, and Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Mazdak Arabi. For this IIC-supported project, Andales and Mazdak collaborated to test remote sensing techniques that would account for near real-time on-site conditions to improve WISE daily crop evapotranspiration estimates.
“The team has shown that the WISE irrigation scheduler outputs can be improved to more accurately indicate when – and how much – to water fully or deficit irrigated corn using multispectral remote sensing data from drones or microsatellites,” Andales said. “We successfully completed a proof-of-concept study that shows that remote sensing data incorporating actual crop conditions could be used to update WISE crop coefficients needed for estimating crop evapotranspiration. In turn, those updated crop coefficients can be used to improve the WISE tool’s irrigation recommendations.”
The next step, Andales said, would be to develop an algorithm that can automate the processing of remote sensing data and adjust the WISE crop coefficients near real time.
– Remote sensing-based decision support with micro-satellites and ground-based data (2018)
Industry partner: Lindsay Corporation
Principal investigator: José Chávez, professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, CSU
Reduced water supplies due to drought and warming, urban growth and industry demand are increasing the need for more efficient water management. Historically, remote sensing and satellite imagery have helped researchers and policymakers, but increasingly individual growers are also able to access and benefit from this technology.
Satellite and unmanned aircraft systems platforms equipped with advanced multispectral sensors offer a high spatial and temporal resolution that can support farmers in making effective irrigation management decisions. Researchers tested the accuracy of UAS combined with satellite images to determine actual water needs or evapotranspiration and soil water deficit for both full- and deficit-irrigation management.
“Right now, a key challenge is to figure out how to get tools like these and what has to happen for such a tool to work reliably in real time for better field-scale or watershed-scale decision making,” Chávez said.
IIC in the future
By building on knowledge gains and working to scale the use of tools and management approaches it has helped support, IIC aims to connect more researchers and industry partners in the months ahead.
“One of the things we like to think about is, how can we involve more key agricultural value chain partners that have a stake in irrigation being used well?” Kremen said. “How do we bring them to the table to help scale adoption and use of innovative management tools and strategies? How can we ensure that using limited water or water reuse can lead to the greatest benefits for communities, ecosystems and economies?”
Telling the story of the science so that more people understand the importance of effective irrigation management is another goal, Kremen added.
“IIC-supported advances and improvements in irrigation management tools and strategies improvements are connected to a much bigger system and represent part of the path to addressing critical water shortages, quality concerns and other challenges. As a result, these irrigation innovations matter to all of us.”