Over the last several decades, a shift from spray and flood irrigation to more efficient drip irrigation systems has helped reduce water waste by specialty agriculture. However, environmental pressures and new regulations—such as California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)—mean that growers must now become even more efficient.
This new report finds that there is significant opportunity for growers to increase farm profits and conserve water by quickly detecting and correcting common issues like plugs, leaks and pressure issues.
“Many of the challenges facing the agriculture sector are incredibly complex and can feel maddingly zero-sum. This study is so exciting because it unearths a large opportunity for improved water use efficiency that is farmer friendly and relatively simple to solve,” said Ceres Imaging Founder and CEO Ashwin Madgavkar.
New technology unearths new opportunities:
This is the first publicly available report that uses aerial imagery to quantify the extent and impact of irrigation issues across a vast geography. Ceres Imaging reviewed anonymized data from more than 1 million acres of drip-irrigated specialty crops across California collected over the course of the 2020 growing season.
“Aerial technology is making it possible to understand our irrigation infrastructure in ways that wouldn’t be imaginable a decade ago,” said James McBride, Head of Science at Ceres Imaging. “In the past we’ve relied on anecdotal information and point sampling to understand irrigation system performance. This study makes it possible to see the full story and quantify the impact caused by these every day issues at a macro level.”
Quantifying the impact of irrigation issues:
This study quantifies the answers to five questions about common irrigation issues like plugs and leaks:
How common are drip irrigation issues?
How large are drip irrigation issues?
What are the regional differences in prevalence and impact of irrigation issues?
What is the impact of drip irrigation issues on yield?
What are the water use and other sustainability impacts of every day irrigation issues?
The extent of common irrigation issues are more pervasive than previously understood. There are considerable opportunities to improve grower profits and increase agriculture resource efficiency by acting on irrigation issues quickly.
For a 1,000 acre grower, the study finds an average of 27 major irrigation issues per season, with an average issue size of 9.9 acres.
A typical 1,000 acre specialty crop grower may suffer an average of $103,000 in lost income due to irrigation issues.
Counties with the highest prevalence of irrigation issues over the 2020 season included: Napa, Sonoma and Yuba
Growers should check for drip irrigation issues more frequently and more thoroughly than previously thought: an irrigation system test every few years is likely not enough. Aerial imagery provides a cost-effective means to more frequent checks for irrigation issues.
Policymakers should consider timely irrigation issue detection as an efficient and farmer-friendly route to reducing water use—with potential for other additional related environmental benefits, including reduced nitrate leaching and energy, pesticide, and fertilizer use.