Farmers are adaptive people by nature. We can adapt our irrigation practices today for our water supply tomorrow.
By Austin Hubbell
Growers have all become acquainted with water conservation efforts in recent years. Since the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) came into play in 2014, the challenge to get creative with available water supply has only increased. I’ve found that using a combination of drip and flood irrigation methods, as well as implementing on-farm recharge, is a strategic response to use available water effectively, both for growing our crops and for saving the water below our feet.
I’m a first-generation grower and I serve as the ranch manager for Marthedal Enterprises, Inc. Although Valley growers face challenges running our farming operations, we have a proven track record of overcoming them. When it comes to water supply challenges, it will be growers’ shared commitment to water use efficiency and flexibility that will lead us to success for generations to come.
Flexibility means changing the way we use surface water. When we have big water years, we flood our fields for irrigation— but rely on our drip system to efficiently apply groundwater in times of drought. During the wettest years, we actively recharge the aquifer on the farm while irrigating — not just irrigating in lieu of pumping groundwater — but applying more than the crop needs to actively recharge the aquifer. I encourage my neighbors to do the same.
Being flexible in farming operations is not always easy. I acknowledge growers are hesitant to put crops underwater for a month continuously, so on-farm recharge doesn’t always feel like an option. But there are ways to reduce risks. We’ve been able to come up with a system that gives sections of our land a break by rotating where and when we apply excess water. We can flood one field for a week at a time before moving water to a different field, or even our neighbors, or rotate the section of field we flood.
Another option is to alternate flooding rows and furrows. Using these strategies, we’ve still been able to get equipment back on the field about seven days after we cut the water off. It’s these small changes in farm management that will help impact the bigger picture and greater good.
These practices need to be embraced, especially in the sandier soils that are fit for it, because it’s going to take a collective effort like this to achieve our groundwater sustainability goals.
While change is hard, I know we can agree it’s well worth the effort to make small changes to our practices if it means we increase the likelihood we can continue farming into the future.
The decisions we make with our irrigation are our legacy for our children and grandchildren. Farmers are adaptive people by nature, and farmers have always tried to adapt to challenges. This is just another one of those challenges.
About the author: Austin Hubbell is the Ranch Manager for Marthedal Enterprises, Inc., a family-owned diversified farming operation in Fresno County, CA.