published on March 13, 2017 - 8:40 AM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
With most of California out of exceptional or extreme drought status, you might expect farmers who had been desperate to find ways to save water slacking off on those efforts.


But you’d be wrong.

If last month’s World Ag Expo in Tulare is any indication, they were just as interested in seeking water-saving technology as they have been over the past five years of major drought conditions in the state.

“That was the big question last year — of how we could use water more efficiently,” said Chad Vaninger, executive vice president and general manager of St. Louis, Missouri-based Brookside Agra, a company selling treatments that allow soil to more effectively absorb water.

“Probably half our questions [during the Expo] were about water efficiency, and the rest was how do we do more with less.”

Just last year, California was in its fifth consecutive year of the worst drought ever recorded in the state, and farmers here were facing new conservation regulations that in the coming years will impose limits on the amount of groundwater they pump from their wells.

But despite a break from the drought thanks to above-average rain and snow, Vaninger said just about as many farmers as last year came to his booth during February’s Ag Expo.

In fact, Cord Nuñez said, “It’s been the same and actually increasing,” compared to last year at his Expo booth.

Nuñez is a territory sales manager for Hortau Simplified Irrigation, a San Luis Obispo-based maker of soil tension sensors used to improve irrigation efficiency.

As for why water savings and efficiency still remains a priority for farmers, several vendors of irrigation products said California farmers aren’t counting on this year’s wet winter to continue, as many meteorologists have warned that drought years could become more frequent in this state.

In addition, the state’s aquifers have been badly depleted from years of overuse, which became worse during the recent drought. Estimates are that it could take years or even decades of wetter-than-average winters to replenish them — if that ever happens.

On top of that, California farmers are dealing with new water regulations, including state Senate Bill 88, which took effect last year, setting measurement and reporting requirements for water rights holders diverting 10 acre-feet of surface water or more annually to their farming operations.

And the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, requires water districts or counties to submit groundwater sustainability plans starting in 2020, and likely will result in California farmers — particularly those in the Central Valley, the area hardest hit by the drought and where some of the most depleted aquifers in the state are located — being forced to measure their groundwater use and restrict how much they use.

So it’s no surprise that technology to measure water pumped from wells is of particular interest to California farmers, said Pam Fuller, regional sales manager for McCrometer, a Hemet-based maker of water-flow measuring devices.

In fact, she said, over the past few years, her company’s sales have gone up about 250 percent, largely because of the drought and the resultant conservation regulations.

“Even with the [recent] rain, the regulations are in effect,” so farmers are looking for technology to comply with them, she said.

Still, the wet weather is having an effect on farmers, with some hoping it will give them enough breathing room to put off water-related projects and purchases.

For example, Vaninger said, lot of the farmers he spoke to at the Expo weren’t as singularly focused on water savings as they had been in the past, and many also wanted to discuss how to improve their soil nutrition.

And the demand for well drilling — which has been in such high demand in recent years that some companies had waiting lists of a year or more — likely will taper off this year, as the winter rains and the anticipated increase in available surface water for irrigation likely will take pressure off some farmers to drill new wells right away to replace failed ones, said Tom Krazan, owner of Kings River Drilling in Sanger.

“The recent heavy rains has also reduced the immediate need for watering, so many pumps are turned off right now,” he said, adding that the slowdown in demand for new wells also is being affected by major farming operations already having their new well drilled and several farmers pulling out their old orchards and vineyards and preparing their land to plant new, higher-value crops.

“For the smaller farmer or rural resident, the motivation for drilling new wells is different. Many are of the opinion that the water table will return with these heavy rains,” said Krazan, a geotechnical engineer by trade.

But he warned that except for farms near the Kings and San Joaquin rivers, as well as those near major canals, wells across most of the Valley will not rise in the near future because in most areas parts of the Valley it may take years or decades for the water from this winter’s rainfall to percolate into the aquifers.

“In fact you will see a continued decrease in the groundwater level [this year], albeit at a slower rate, because the bigger farming operations are not pumping groundwater at the moment.”

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