“When you talk about irrigation, whenever you can simply not turn on a system, that is always the preferred alternative,” said David Reckford, who spoke Thursday during a Conservation Leadership Partnership forum at Augusta State University.
South Georgia’s agriculture-rich Flint River Basin is a major producer of cotton, corn, peanuts and other thirsty crops, he said, and virtually all depend on huge irrigation systems.
During the past decade, as droughts and spiraling demand put more stress on groundwater reserves, efforts have been under way to conserve those resources through development of what is known as “variable rate irrigation,” he said.
“The first system came on in 2000,” he said. “Now in 2012 it has improved dramatically, with the streamlining of technology and reductions in cost.”
The systems include GPS technology that enables center-pivots to place water only where it is needed, skipping over unfarmed wetlands and similar areas that do not require irrigation. There are not more than 70 such systems in the state, which, on average, have reduced water use by 17 percent.
The systems include remote soil moisture monitoring that involve probes in the ground that allow farmers to irrigate only when needed.
A few years back, those sensors were expensive – as much as $5,000 apiece. Today, they are smaller and a farmer can buy 20 of them for about $3,500.
Development of technology, he said, is neither easy nor cheap and requires partnerships that bring government agencies, universities and landowner/business interests together.
The efforts are attracting attention in the U.S. and beyond, he said. He predicted that variable rate irrigation soon will see global use.
“VRI is an option now, but it’s being deployed worldwide,” he said. “What that means is, anywhere in the world where someone puts in a center-pivot, they will have the option of putting water only where they want it.”