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GLOBAL REPORT

Water management 2.0

Farmers in Spain are going high-tech by pushing for a nationally controlled digital grid to manage irrigation and preserve precious agua.

November 12, 2007|Ciaran Giles | The Associated Press

ALBERIQUE, SPAIN — For decades, Alberto Martorell and his family have been irrigating their rolling groves of orange and persimmon trees in this sweltering corner of eastern Spain by the traditional method -- swamping them under a flood of water from the local canal.

But if a national farmers' group has its way, those days will soon be over.

Martorell is one of a growing number of Spanish farmers who have signed up to go digital -- agreeing to switch to drip irrigation and connect their fields to a national grid monitored from Madrid.

The idea is to save money and, equally important in an era of global warming, precious water. Officials say the system could end up saving 20% of the water Spain uses for irrigation today -- a whopping 1.3 trillion gallons per year.

It is a watershed change for a country that is one of Europe's breadbaskets, but has been basically relying on a system introduced by Moorish invaders centuries ago.

"We're jumping from the 13th century to the 21st century," said Juan Valero, secretary general of Spain's irrigation farmers' federation, called Fenacore.

Although computer-assisted irrigation is not new, Spanish officials believe that no other country is organizing it at a national level. So far 200,000 farmers have signed up for the project, Valero said. By 2010, the government hopes that number rises to 500,000, representing the vast majority of the farmers who utilize irrigation in Spain.

Valero said that years of chronic drought, coupled with vastly increased water use, had worn down resistance to the changes. The government is chipping in, paying all the costs of the system right up to where it reaches each farmers' land.

Martorell, a stocky, sun-beaten 50-year-old, acknowledged that his main motivation for making the switch was money, not becoming part of any green revolution.

"The methods we have been using are obsolete," he said, standing amid a field of persimmon trees. "New technology allows you to save time, improve harvests and most importantly, save water, which is the principal problem we have nowadays."

His land's irrigation system is in the process of being modernized, and Martorell hopes to have it completed within three years.

Under the project, Fenacore is encouraging farmers not just to move away from wasteful flood irrigation systems but also to lay highly efficient telecommunications cables alongside main water conduits.

The telecommunications cables will be connected to computer centers regionally and nationally from where the irrigation grid can be monitored, with screens showing which land is getting water, how much it is getting, when and at what pressure.

"Instead of manually lifting sluice gates to flood fields, farmers will be able to do it from laptops or even mobile phones," Valero said. "The aim is to manage water better. We have to rationalize its consumption, and to do this, information is fundamental."

The endeavor represents a revolution in a country that is 50% arid and outpaces the rest of Europe by devoting as much as 70% of its water resources to irrigation.

But much of its system of channeling water from rivers for miles and miles is based on an intricate grid of open canals first developed by the Arabs after they invaded Spain in the 8th century.

Such was the influence of the Moors that nearly every Spanish word dealing with irrigation and water stems from Arabic, such as acequia for irrigation ditch or alcantarilla for a drain.

Although many of the Arab-styled watering ditches have been replaced with closed concrete piping, especially over the last century, many of the original open channels can still be seen crisscrossing the lush fields of southern and eastern Spain.

But these systems lose millions of gallons through evaporation, poor maintenance and runoff, something a country just emerging from a drought caused by the lowest annual rainfall on record cannot afford.

"In almost half of Spain, the irrigation technique used is flooding, which uses up to three or four times more than the water that is necessary," Environment Minister Cristina Narbona said recently.

Spain's profligate water usage has long concerned experts and conservationists. The country is estimated to lose more than 60% of its water before it reaches the tap, and only 1.5% is recycled.

In addition, Spain's never-ending construction boom -- with sprawling urban projects, mushrooming tourist complexes and golf courses -- has greatly increased demand.

"Spain is finally bringing itself up to date in terms of irrigation," said Complutense University professor Manuel Ramon Llamas, one of Spain's leading water experts.

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