Lifeblood of the Desert: Is Tech the Answer to Yuma Water Woes?

Apr 11, 2018

In Yuma, Arizona, the Colorado River is not what it was.  For thousands of years, its raging water deposited rich soil in the delta, creating one of the most verdant agricultural areas in the world.  Today, the river flow is 1 percent of what it was a century ago, but agriculture continues to thrive even as the water needed to maintain it dwindles due to over-allocation and drought. 

How does the area’s number one user of Colorado River water survive in the face of a vanishing water supply?  The answer: Technology.  Maya Springhawk of the Arizona Science Desk continues our series on the role of rivers and water in desert cities…

Tractors throw dust in the air on a road next to a green field of durum wheat in Yuma, Arizona.  We’re miles from the Colorado River, the lifeblood of agriculture in this desert region, but we’re surrounded by water.  The over-burdened river quenches every crop here.

"What comes out of the ditch is measured. What comes in a rainfall is measured. What comes out of the sprinklers, it's measured."

Paul Brierley, the Executive Director of the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, or YCEDA, says that’s why growers have to be vigilant.

“We track every bit of water that comes onto each crop, so it’s measured,” Brierley emphasizes. “What comes out of the ditch is measured.  What comes in a rainfall is measured.  What comes out of the sprinklers, it’s measured.  So we know how much water is being applied.”

In 2015, the Yuma Water Coalition—a consortium of local water users, researchers, and other stakeholders—released a case study of the region’s water efficiency.  They found there was very little room for improvement in their practices.

“Our average on-farm efficiency, as has been documented, at between 75 and 80% efficiency,” says Roberta “Bobbi” Stevenson-McDermott, a retired conservationist for the United States Department of Agriculture.  She stares down into the dark water of one of the many canals carved across the desert in this area.  “There is no system that is more efficient than the Yuma County irrigation system,” she says.

"There is no system that is more efficient than the Yuma County irrigation system."

Yuma County’s agriculture generates $2.5 billion in economic activity each year and produces 90% of all leafy vegetables grown in the United States from November to March. Stevenson-McDermott says that means Yuma County relies on Colorado River water for its very survival.

“One in four jobs in Yuma County is somehow related to agriculture,” Stevenson-McDermott explains. “If we aren’t farming, we are going to turn into a rural wasteland.  Because it all depends on our combination of water, soil, and climate.”

Taking all of that into account, YCEDA, the University of Arizona, Yuma farmers, and even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA) are trying to quantify exactly how much water is needed for any given crop.   With the Southwest in an eighteen-year drought and the river over-allocated, this objective is more pressing than ever.

Dr. Charles A. Sanchez, a professor of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences with the University of Arizona, is using special sensors to measure salt and evaporation levels in crops. 

“This is a large aperture scintillometer,” he gestures to a tall, thin metal structure.  Other equipment being used includes an eddy covariance system and an electromagnetic conductor.  They are high tech names for sensors that collect data about heat in the air and salt in the soil.

"We'll know the water and salt balance throughout not only a given crop system but the multi-cropping rotations we use in this region."

“So we’ll know the water and salt balance throughout not only a given crop system but the multi-cropping rotations we use in this region,” Sanchez explains.

Sets of these instruments have been set up in seven locations across Yuma.  The data from this equipment and other sources will be used to “groundtruth”—or validate—data that NASA has agreed to share from its satellites.  The entire project will cost about a million dollars. 

“These are very expensive instrumentation—they’re research tools,” Sanchez says. “But ultimately we want to put a tool in a grower’s hands he can use.”

In other words, they want to make an app for that—an app that would allow farmers to adjust water usage without fear of damaging their crops.  They hope to have it available within 5 years.

None of this was technologically possible in 2015 when the Yuma Water Coalition thought they’d reached the limits of water efficiency.  Now, Paul Brierley of YCEDA says, with science, Colorado River water users are closer than ever to accounting for every drop.

“Much of the equipment we’re using and the sensors are leading edge, they’re just coming out now,” Brierley says. “These new technologies and new ways to be able to collect data allow us to be more efficient in ways that we couldn’t before because we just didn’t have the data.”

This piece was part of a three-part “Lifeblood of the Desert” series by the Arizona Science Desk: KAWC Colorado River Public Media, Arizona Public Media, and KJZZ. 

Part one of the series can be found in the related content section below. 

Part three can be found on the KJZZ website: http://kjzz.org/content/633316/lifeblood-desert-salt-river-project-teams-turn-asu-robots-maintain-canal-system