California Dreaming: Farmers, scientists sustainably getting by with less water

California is no stranger to drought, and because of that, farmers and scientists are joining forces to figure out how to get by with less.

ByTim Sarquis via KGO logo
Thursday, April 1, 2021
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California's Central Valley is no stranger to drought, and because of that, farmers and scientists are joining forces to figure out how to get by with less.

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. -- Water covers 71% of the earth's surface, but only about 3% percent of it is fresh water, making it the planet's most precious resource.

But what do you do when water is in danger of going dry?

California's Central Valley is no stranger to drought, and because of that, farmers and scientists are joining forces to figure out how to get by with less.

"It's not just running water from one side to the other, there's a method to the madness right," said Reedley College instructor, Tim Smith.

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"One of the most important features of the class is teaching them how to determine when to irrigate and how much to apply. And that's not the most easiest set of factors that you would learn in any other program. They're fairly specific but it's about teaching students how to, again, to do the amount of water that's necessary no more, no less, and when to put it on the timing aspects of that we optimize for production. We want to produce an abundance and do it sustainably," Smith added.

One of the best ways to use water sustainably is by using it more than once.

Before the water reaches our homes, it starts here in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, where it eventually melts and makes its way down creeks and rivers to a reservoir like the Pine Flat reservoir. It's there where water starts its sustainable journey through hydroelectric power.

"So the electricity is generated actually through the falling force of water. There's three penstocks that actually come through this dam, and they're at a higher elevation. And our generators sit at a lower elevation, and through that falling force, they run through three turbines," said David Merritt with the Kings River Conservation District.

"So we can put out 165 megawatts of power from this asset. You know, it's been three different generators, and then after it goes through that process, it is now fed into the river and is used for the irrigators at that time," Merritt added.

"So it's actually a multi-beneficial resource, you know, the Kings River, through irrigation use, through power use and also there's a recreational aspect. The recreation up on the reservoir, but there's also recreational uses below the power plant here with the fishery," Merritt said.

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Once the water makes its way through the power plant and down over 700 miles of Central Valley canals, farmers need to know how to do more with less.

Fresno State's Center for Irrigation Technology is doing just that.

"So we have basically three essential functions. We do field testing and technology. We do research relating to agriculture specifically for irrigation, and then we have a laboratory that tests and certifies equipment for different research experiments that are all testing different aspects of water use efficiency. One is focused on a product that may reduce consumptive use of water. This system basically generates the fertilizer on-site using solar power," said Charles Hillyer with Fresno State's Center of Irrigation Technology.

"Agriculture is almost all of it is about food, right, so it only matters to people. And in California, irrigation is not optional. So irrigation matters to everybody who eats in California. That's why sustainable production practices are important because this is how we're going to continue to feed ourselves and the rest of the world," Hillyer said.

Whether it's training the future of irrigation managers, the use of renewable energy with the help of water, or the research and development of new technologies in irrigation, the future is bright for sustainable water use.

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"My hope is that this institution will continue as it has done in the past to generate research and pure science research that is useful not only to agriculture but other scientists," Hillyer said.

"Everyone needs to understand really how and why it's being done so that when they see it being done that they understand that that practice is really something we have to do, and we have to do it right," Smith said.

Our special docuseries "California Dreaming" explores the challenges, solutions and people striving to keep the Golden State great, and the California Dream alive. Download our app on Roku, AppleTV, FireTV or AndroidTV to watch the special now on your TV!