Written by David Castellon
During last year’s World Ag Expo, Greg Creson noticed the number of people visiting his Water Made Right booth was a bit light compared to previous few years.
Not that the Tulare-based sales representative was surprised coming off of a wet winter. Creson’s company makes sulfur burners to improve the ph balance of soil, which allows it to absorb water better, so farmers waste less.
Simply put, many farmers, ranchers and others who had been so desperate to look at water-saving technology during the drought years were ready to take a break last year and were hopeful that last year’s highly wet winter would be followed by a few more.
That didn’t happen, as California looks to be falling back into a drought pattern this winter.
It seems farmers and others are gearing up for it, as interest in water-saving technologies rose again during this year’s Expo, which concluded Thursday.
“This is the year people are going to have to be concerned,” Creson said.
That means farmers in the state will have to again rely heavily on well water or have to purchase water, which can be extremely costly, so finding ways to stretch out or make more efficient use of the water they have is again likely the top issue now in California agriculture, he added.
“When it’s raining, irrigation is really not at the forefront of everyone’s concerns,” said Jeremy Otto, vice president of sales for San Luis Obispo-based HORTAU, which helps growers manage their irrigation based on real-time field data monitored by the company.
“Their focus was on other areas of production,” he added.
While interest in his company’s water-saving services picked up since Tuesday’s start of the three-day Expo, the dry winter seems to be only part of the reason, Otto said.
“I think some of the regulations coming down the pipe — with SGMA and SB88 —I think, obviously, there’s added pressure to farm now with less water, so people are starting to pay attention again.”
SGMA, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which was signed into law in 2014, is the first legislation passed that controls the amount of groundwater farms, cities and others can use by compelling water districts or counties to set rules on how much water they can pump to curtail groundwater depletion.
Once those rules are developed, they’ll likely be extensive in the Valley, where California’s most overdrafted groundwater basins are located.
State Senate Bill 88, passed by the lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, requires all surface water rights holders and claimants to report when they divert water, and those who divert more than 10 acre-feet of water per year must also measure their diversions.
A single acre-foot of water is the amount that would fill an acre one foot deep.
“Knowing where, when, and how much water is being used is essential to managing the system fairly for all,” state Water Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said last year in a discussion about the new law. “We’ve historically not had a complete picture, and these past two years have made it even more essential to take this common-sense move.”
These new water laws, along with an increasingly unpredictable climate, are all further pushing interest in doing more with less water, Otto said.
“I guess the culture has changed,” said Ali Farsad, sales manager for Soilmoisture Equipment Corp. in Santa Barbara.
He added that this year, people in the ag industry seem more skeptical that California will have at least a few wet years in a row any time soon, so they’re inclined to prepare for more dry years.
Kent Kidd, a territory manager for Valley Irrigation, a Nebraska-based maker of automatic irrigation systems, said he’s heard none of those reasons from potential customers visiting his Ag Expo booth.
“Most of the guys I’ve talked to, it hasn’t been about the water [savings] issue. It’s how they can save on labor and the rising labor costs,” he said.
Adding to the labor cost concern is the passage of legislation in 2016 that granted agricultural workers the same rights to receive overtime pay as other workers in the state, said Kidd, adding that farmers were interested in his irrigation technology that would require fewer laborers than they need now.
“One grower expressed to me an interest in changing crops to one not as labor intensive,” he recounted.
And while attendance to his booth actually was slightly down compared to last year, the number of “serious lookers” who might become customers was up.
“I’m seeing a lot more small farmers coming in to ask questions about this. They didn’t want to spend money on it before and now they do,” said Walter Peterson, an industrial salesman for Soilmoisture.
For farms as small as 10 to 40 acres, “They’re asking, ‘What can I do to save water,’” he recounted.
“They know they can only pump up so much water. They’re all in the same boat.”