Digital cloud cover

Monday 08th Aug 2011 by theWeather Club

Times are hard for Texan farmers. The state is in the grip of a severe drought, and there has been no rain in Plainview for nearly a year. "Even 30 years ago we had probably twice as much water as we have now," says Texan cotton farmer Glenn Schur, but he says technology in water management has improved over the last 15 years. "What we're trying to do is to come up with ways to conserve water," says Mr Schur. "We're using all the newest available technology for water management."

One of the methods Mr Schur uses is a system of water probes that harness 'cloud computing' and the internet to predict when to water his crops. The solar-powered probes are, buried to a depth of about 1.5 metres, with soil moisture sensors every four inches along a vertical column. Each probe has a small transmitter and sends data every three minutes, tracking soil moisture, salinity at each depth, and the state of the roots of the crop. Once analysed, the results are held in the 'digital cloud' and can be accessed by computer or smart phone. The system can also send text alerts and emails with instructions on when irrigation should next take place. Mr Schur says technology like this has saved him $30 an acre per year in irrigation costs, as well as the increasing crop yields. "With the probes it gives us an idea of the water movement into the soil profile, it also allows us to look at the plant development all along, and in several cases we've been able to stop an irrigation or delay it for several days." the Texan farmer explained.

There are currently between 1-2bn people living in places where water is in short supply, and this is expected to increase significantly. Population growth, urbanisation, climate change, and dam building mean water is often quite simply in the wrong place. However water consultant Dr David Lloyd Owen says often supply is not the problem. "What humans are not very good at is managing it... there's a shortage of is management capacity and political will to put our natural resources to beneficial use."

"In a typical traditional irrigation system maybe 10-20% of water put into the system actually gets anywhere near a root. It's an extremely wasteful way of using what is already a scarce resource." Dr Owen explains. "The art here is with what water you use - whether through water harvesting, waste water reuse, desalination, [or] ground water - to use it in the most effective way. The great challenge in all aspects of water management is making people value it." It all means that technology that controls water use is doubly important. "If areas have continued population growth, and they're not able to improve the efficiency of irrigation agriculture, they're going to have increasing and quite frankly terrifying problems in feeding their people in the decades to come," says Dr Lloyd Owen.

Under a baking sun, in his cotton fields, Mr Schur at least is optimistic. "Technology in agriculture is moving very fast, and we're looking at a lot of ways of using the internet to gain information on what is happening on our farm," he says. "We're seeing higher yields than we've ever experienced, with less water."