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Farmers turn to drip-tape irrigation to save water

Drip tape, which pumps water directly to a plant's roots, is the latest device farmers are using to boost production amid ever-dwindling water supplies.

May 30, 2013|By Catherine Green, Los Angeles Times
  • Drip tape, now used to water about a third of California's 9.4 million acres of irrigated crop land, holds the promise of growing more crops with less water. Above, drip-tape piping surrounds a pistachio tree at Errotabere Ranches in Riverdale, Calif.
Drip tape, now used to water about a third of California's 9.4 million… (Catherine Green )

RIVERDALE, Calif. — Last year, the federal government gave farmer Dan Errotabere half of the water it had awarded him the previous year to cultivate his 5,200 acres. But he still managed to reap a yield as much as 25% higher.

"I've got to do more with less," said Errotabere, 57, who grows cotton, tomatoes, almonds and pistachios among other crops on his family's ranch in the Central Valley northwest of Visalia.

His trick? The increasingly popular drip-tape method of irrigation, which pumps water directly to a plant's roots.

Drip tape, an industrial-strength version of the garden drip hose, is the latest device farmers statewide are using to boost production in the face of ever-dwindling water supplies. And it just might help the industry stay afloat.

"I personally don't think it's feasible to do without tape now," Errotabere said. "Setting aside the water savings, we just do better growing crops with drip."

Years of drought-mandated rationing have left farmers frustrated with unreliable allotments of scarce water resources each year, threatening the state's $43.5-billion agricultural industry. And with the state in a moderate to severe drought for the last 15 months, they aren't likely to see matters easing soon.

That has forced growers to embrace a series of water-saving measures.

Some plant more fruit and nut trees and other crops that require less irrigation than cotton, grapes and rice. They also refill groundwater reserves during wet years to carry them through the dry ones. Some are experimenting with genetically altering crops so that they sweat less, diminishing overall water loss from planting to plucking.

And some simply let land go fallow, one of the decisions in dealing with the complicated dynamics of limited resources, said Sarge Green, a program director for the California Water Institute research center at Cal State Fresno.

"In the competition for water, if you want to expand the water supply for the environment and drinking water, you have to take land out of agricultural production to get it," he said.

But drip tape, now used to water about a third of the state's 9.4 million acres of irrigated crop land, holds the promise of growing more crops with less water. Green, for one, said he is encouraged by the trend toward more efficient use of water.

Other states have taken note. The turf grass industry in Georgia uses drip tape to keep lawns lush for buyers. Growers use it in Kentucky for their tobacco crop, in New Mexico for peppers and in Washington for onions.

Each year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the nation's biggest wholesaler of water, dictates how much water growers in each district will get for crops. Last year, for instance, growers in the Central Valley Project received 40% of the water they had requested, a sizable drop from the previous year's 80%.

Gayle Holman of the Westlands Water District, which provides water in western Fresno and Kings counties, said some areas in the Central Valley are still recovering from 2009. That year, federal authorities limited water delivery to just 10% of the amount requested.

"Water for us is not just water," Holman said. "It produces food, but it also produces jobs."

The city of Mendota, population 11,000, saw jobs dry up with the land as unemployment spiraled as high as 40%, according to the state's Employment Development Department.

Job growth, Holman said, will occur only when farmers can find new ways to save water.

For a rising number of farmers, the most efficient way to save water is through the use of drip tape, created in the 1960s by Richard Chapin. The founder of Chapin Watermatics Inc. in Watertown, N.Y., intended his "dew hose" for greenhouses.

In the drip-tape system that evolved for farming, water is pushed through thick plastic tubes to a series of thin, flat, pliable hoses with holes in them — the drip tape — that is either buried by the crops or laid on the ground over the roots.

Drip tape solved several water problems in fields and rows.

Mainly, it eliminated wasted water and uneven irrigation that typically occurs with the primary method: flooding. In flooding, water is allowed to creep along the surface or through dug-out furrows on a slope until an irrigator — usually one for each field — manually shuts off valves. Often, crops at the top of the row got more water than those down the line.

"Sometimes a good irrigator got it pretty close," Errotabere said. "Others, in the morning — big pond of water."

In the case of fruit and nut trees, flooding could harm crops. Over-saturation carried the risk of rotting the roots and killing the plants.

Errotabere watched his neighbors install drip-tape systems, but at $1,500 an acre, the installation price was too high for him. When it came down to about $500 an acre, he took the leap.

Now, he said: "There's no runoff on the drip system that we used to see.… We minimize the impact of the shortages that come along."

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