Valves and Value: CIT links irrigation and satellites

In only a few years, farmers may be able to make irrigation decisions within moments by just tapping a few keys on their smartphones.

Students and faculty from Fresno State’s Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT) are doing their part in a project that will eventually result in a smartphone app that alerts farmers when and how much to irrigate. 

CIT is working with CSU Monterey Bay and NASA in a two-part project that will predict required watering for crops. This information will be accessible through the use of an app that will be available on hand-held devices.

CSU Monterey Bay and NASA are collecting data from satellite images to predict an irrigation schedule, while CIT at Fresno State validates this information by using a specific instrument to collect data from crops.

“Overall we are all working together to deliver a model where we could predict what will be the required water for a particular crop at a particular time,” said Florence Cassel, a soil and water scientist at CIT. “So ultimately the goal is optimizing water use and efficiency and optimizing irrigation scheduling.”

CIT uses a tool called a lysimeter to validate the data collected from satellites. A lysimeter is an enormous tank that sits on a scale and is buried in the ground. Crops are planted in the field and the lysimeter records the weight difference in the soil, which is ultimately the presence or lack of water. The lysimeter is incredibly precise because it measures only one crop at a time.

Before this project, the lysimeter at Fresno State had not been used for years because of how expensive it is to operate. In order for it to be operable again, students and faculty from CIT had to make adjustments and repairs to the instrument and went through a lot of trouble shooting.

The lysimeter has been used for years and was especially popular in the ‘80s. Cassel said that there are only three types of lysimeters in California and that their use is extremely sporadic because of the cost.

The lysimeter provides more precise data than the satellite images because the satellite images produce data for a larger area, Cassel said. The idea is to use the satellite images in lieu of the lysimeter.

“In the future we want to use satellite images to guide crop water needs,” Cassel said.

The project is in its first year and will last until 2015. It is funded by the CSU Agriculture Research Initiative, which funds five CSU projects.

Next semester, Touyee Thao, a Fresno State graduate student, will work with the lysimeter for his thesis project. He said he hopes it will improve his understanding of crop, soil and water relationships and improve his research skills.

Cassel and Thao are both working in the project with a similar goal in mind— water conservation.

Cassel said many growers do not use an irrigation schedule and are probably irrigating too much. She said that this method will show growers how to irrigate for different soils as well as irrigate to the specific size of the field.

“It will give them a better idea of their water needs,” Cassel said.

Thao said that growers need to be innovative in the way they utilize such a precious resource.

“This includes properly and efficiently irrigating their field at the right time with minimal water losses,” he said.


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