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Ag community takes on a drought with uncertain future

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Photo illustration by Matt Vieira / The Collegian

In response to California’s unprecedented drought, state officials announced Friday that the State Water Project (SWP)—a publicly operated water storage and conveyance system that distributes water to urban and agricultural water suppliers throughout California—will not distribute any water to local water agencies in 2014 if dry conditions persist.

Those agencies, which help supply water to 25 million Californians and about 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland, will be forced to draw water from other sources such as groundwater and local reservoirs.

The statement, made by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), came only two weeks after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency and urged all citizens to cut back on water use by at least 20 percent.

Fresno State’s Robert Boyd, associate vice president for facilities management, said campus officials will gather in the coming weeks to create a strategy to combat the dry months ahead.

“We’re starting to look at our reduction plan, how we’re going to reduce our irrigation and what we can do to preserve the plant materials [on campus], but at the same time reduce our watering,” he said. “The same goes for the [campus] farms, because there is just not going to be that kind of water available.”

Boyd said facilities management is also planning to extend piping on two of the university’s domestic water wells to the campus farm irrigation system. Although the wells can no longer be used for drinking water due to contamination from sand and nitrates, Boyd said they are perfect for irrigation.

“In the next couple of months, that is going to really help out the farm a lot,” he said of the extension.

 Boyd said Fresno State usually receives most of its water from the Fresno Irrigation District, a network of canals and water distribution systems that comprises more than 245,000 acres of land within Fresno County.

Typically, much of the water that is distributed comes from the Pine Flat Reservoir, but Boyd said that may not be the case this year.

“I was up at Pine Flat Lake the other day, and it’s at about 15 percent, so I don’t think there is going to be any water coming from the reservoir,” he said. “We have to start looking at a different plan, and this one makes perfect sense because it takes out the water we can’t drink and uses it for farming.”

 David Zoldoske, director of the Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT), said the extensions should allow the campus farms enough water to continue operating through the summer.

“We’re in the process of determining our crop water demand for the summer, and we may delay some plantings of crops to make sure we have enough water during certain periods of time,” he said. “Quite frankly, this is the first time we have ever had to do that in a very precise way.”

As California’s drought crisis continues to cripple many Central Valley farmers, Zoldoske said the importance of water management has gained increasing attention—but it may be too little, too late.

“Those farmers who have less dependable water supplies—for instance, those folks who might be dependent on the SWP, which is now supposed to get zero water—their crops may be at risk,” he said. “Their crops may not be planted this year. If they have trees, those trees may not survive.”

Zoldoske said it is important to begin conserving and planning now for a possible extended drought.

“Unfortunately, while this is the third year of drought, I’m telling folks that this may be the third year of a 10-year drought,” he said. “We just have to pretend as if this is an extended drought and hope that it’s not.”

If an extended drought does persist, Zoldoske said conditions in the Valley could get much worse.

“I think—while this will be a rough year—if we continue to have an extended drought, by 2015 or 2016 it will really start to hurt our local economy,” he said.

Zoldoske said other efforts to maintain appropriate water usage on campus include the installation of soil moisture sensors and water meters, which help monitor how much water has been applied to a certain area. Those technologies, he said, will enhance data collection abilities and allow for better water management.

Zoldoske said he has also suggested that periodic audits be conducted on the university’s farms and landscapes to evaluate how well the irrigation system is working and make repairs as needed. The audits would also include campus restrooms, sinks and showers.

“It is a renewed focus on maintenance that is probably more warranted during times of drought than any other time,” he said.

Zoldoske said CIT is also promoting the use of water meters and soil moisture sensors in the general farming population. Without those tools, he said, it is difficult to determine the proper amount of water to apply a given area.

 Paul Kariuki, a Fresno State alumnus who tests irrigation equipment for CIT, said the center gives the university an opportunity to be at the forefront of irrigation technology.

“The main thing that we always look at is water loss and how to prevent it,” Kariuki said. “CIT is very unique in the sense that there are not many other campuses that have this type of research, technology and testing going on all the time.”

In the future, Kariuki said, the center will continue to conduct research that will aid farmers across America and the world by testing various types of irrigation equipment and ensuring its efficiency.

“I know recycling and going green was a big push, but, more and more, water is becoming a big part of that and it kind of has its own movement,” he said. “It’s important and a good thing that CIT is a major part in contributing to helping us—helping the world—conserve water.”

Students can help by staying informed and understanding the importance of conserving water, Zoldoske said.

“If they [students] see something—a broken pipe or water running that seems to be inappropriate—they can report that to plant operations or to the farm,” he said. “There is a responsibility for all of us. We would welcome their input.”

Zoldoske said he would also encourage students and members of the community to be good water stewards by taking small actions such as taking shorter showers, not leaving water running and making sure home sprinklers are operating appropriately.

“If we all take that on as a personal challenge collectively, we will see a big benefit to the Fresno community,” he said.