In Israel’s Negev Desert, the agricultural community at the Hatzerim kibbutz has put innovative irrigation techniques to work to make this region’s arid landscape blossom — and Weld County has taken note.
Through the use of drip irrigation developed by Netafim, already put to use by local onion grower Fagerberg Produce, a team of researchers and water investors hopes this Israeli technology may also lead to a greener, more efficient future for Colorado’s farms and municipalities.
With water conservation in mind, Colorado State University and the 70 Ranch, located off of U.S. 34 and Weld County Road 63, have teamed up under the Subsurface Irrigation Efficienty Project to put the Netafim system to the test under local conditions.
The property, owned and operated by United Water and Sanitation District President Bob Lembke, will provide a 165-acre plot to be dedicated to drip and deficit irrigation testing over the next 30 to 40 years.
The $3.5-million study comes with funding from the Sand Hills Metropolitan District, United Water and Sanitation District, Legacy Waters Inc. and the 70 Ranch, LLC, as well as support from the Platte River Water Development Authority and Jewish Colorado.
Lembke said a 2011 trip to Israel and the Hatzerim kibbutz with Jewish Colorado left him inspired by the possibilities rendered by well-managed irrigation techniques.
“When you see what they’ve been able to do with far less than what we have, it’s amazing,” Lembke said, explaining that the project aims to distribute water more efficiently across farmland and lawns, ideally translating into more irrigated acreage.
“As the area (Colorado) continues to develop, the paradigm has been to buy ag water, move it from the farm, move it to the city and well, rural communities can fend for themselves. That hasn’t worked very well and I don’t like that structure. In examining alternatives, the Netafim technology may be one answer,” he said.
Netafim district sales manager Jason Scheibel explained the system works through polyethylene lines plowed 10 to 16 inches below the surface that supply water, fertilizer and pesticides directly to plant roots, rather than above the surface.
“We have better control over our water and fertilizer by putting it at the root zone. This allows us to control deep percolation, which keeps chemicals and fertilizers from getting to waterways and aquifers,” Scheibel said, also pointing to the benefits of reduced weed germination and lower herbicide inputs.
Drip irrigation has been found to be 20 to 30 more efficient with water use when compared to pivot systems, and up to 60 percent more efficient than furrow systems, he added. On the Colorado plains, he estimated the Netafim system costs about $2,000 an acre to install.
Lead CSU researcher Dr. Ramchand Oad said the pilot study hopes to answer cost questions for producers, by providing insight on water input and resulting yield when using the drip irrigation method. As the project moves forward, the findings of this research will be made publicly available at http://www.siep-smartwater.com.
Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said such knowledge could help farmers pull through difficult seasons.
“In those dry years when those junior water right farms are struggling to find water to sustain their crops, they’ll have an idea of what crops will sustain a lower water yield,” Conway said.
Regarding municipal water use, Lembke envisioned drip irrigation installed on lawns to reduce one of the greatest areas of urban water inefficiency: watering grass.
Looking at the larger picture of Colorado’s future, the governor’s water advisor John Stulp provided his support for the research project, as well: “This is consistent with what we’ve been talking about with the Colorado Water Plan. We need to look for innovative, creative ways to do more water sharing that still puts the farmer in charge.”
A Colorado water broker and a university researcher are testing underground crop irrigation, hoping it can make farms more efficient and reduce competition between cities and agriculture for the state’s scarce water.
The first crops will be planted this summer on a 165-acre test plot on the 70 Ranch in Weld County. Research will be overseen by Colorado State University professor Ramchand Oad (OHD).
Copying a technique used in Israel, tubes buried 10 to 16 inches underground will deliver water to plant roots, avoiding evaporation and other problems associated with surface irrigation.
Water broker Bob Lembke owns the ranch. The ranch and two water districts that Lembke heads are among the initial funders.
He says project budget is $3.5 million for five years but expects the research will continue longer.