Friends of Farming

 San Diego County

Drip Irrigation: The role played by University of California Cooperative Extension.

22 Jan 2016 4:40 PM | Deleted user


Written by Sonia Rios & James Bethke, UCCE Farm Advisors

With the recent drought and water shortages that we are experiencing in California, conserving water is crucial, especially because of the governor’s emergency order that mandates water use reductions. Fortunately, agriculture is exempted from the order, but there are ways that even agriculture can contribute to the reduction. One such way is the use of drip irrigation (Figure 1), and throughout the last 100 years, the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) has played a pronounced role in research and education in drip-irrigation technology. Indeed, almost 40% of the irrigated cropland in California is now using drip largely due to the efforts of UCCE and the private sector. In addition to increasing crop quality, it is estimated that the sum of the value of water saving and the additional income from the yield effect lies between $313 million and $1.13 billion, with an average range of $758 million and $283 million annually.

When this new method was introduced back in the 1960’s, its adoption was not immediate. In fact, many growers saw this method to be costly and risky. In 1969, however, San Diego Farm Advisor, Don Gustafson (Figure 2), visited Israel where this innovative method was adopted. When he returned, he initiated the first drip system research trial in an avocado grove here in San Diego County, and the first drip irrigation seminar soon followed with over 600 people in attendance. A few years after, San Diego County was placed on the map at the international level as they hosted the second International Drip Irrigation Congress in Escondido, drawing over 2,000 attendees from 29 countries and 70 exhibitors.

During the 1980’s, drip irrigation generated a great deal more interest, especially after major droughts (1977-78 and again 1987-91), and it gained the interest of the allied industries in the private sector. It was during this time Fresno State Center for Irrigation and Cal Poly Irrigation Training and Research Center opened their doors with the goal on improving irrigation technology. Adoption of drip irrigation occurred slowly, but it went from 60,000 acres in 1976 to over 350,000 in 1985. Between 1987 and 1991, California suffered another major drought, but the drought was the impetus for a 50% increase in the use of drip irrigation in fruit production and a 10% increase use in the state’s vegetable production.  In the early 1990’s, with popularity of drip systems increasing and additional technology improvements, systems became more affordable. As such, there was a significant increase in the diversity of crops that adopted the practice.

Drip technology is now recognized as a proper water saving technique, and UCCE continues to train growers and conduct additional research that focuses on more effective water, fertilizer, and pest control management using drip.

With the cost of water in San Diego County going for more than $600 per acre foot, drip irrigation has once again come into the limelight, especially with high value specialty crops. But what is the value of all the work UCCE has contributed to water savings and additional income due to increased yields in California agriculture? It is estimated (at a cost of $150 per acre foot) that UCCE’s contribution to the implementation of drip irrigation brings the state between $78 million and $283 million annually. Be assured that as stewards of the land, UCCE has played a huge part in the evolution and adoption of drip irrigation technology in California and will continue to seek innovative techniques to assist growers.

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