Innovations in Irrigation Efficiency

Technological advances could help us lead in meeting the global demand for affordable food

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Canola field in Central Washington

How important is irrigation in feeding the world's population? With population growing over 100 million each year, we'll reach 9 billion people by 2050. To feed these many people, it could take two Earths, said Fred Ziari, a water resource and irrigation entrepreneur, in his presentation to the Council's power committee.

Meeting the global demand for affordable food is a crucial challenge for today's farmers, and increasing irrigation efficiency is key. 

Large-scale farming in Eastern Oregon and Washington, which uses the most advanced technologies in the world, leads in efficiency of water use at 95 percent irrigation efficiency. Eighty percent of their produce is exported. The goal, said Ziari, is to increase water management efficiency throughout the Columbia Basin to 90+ percent. 

Today's farms tend to be much larger enterprises that rely on technologies to increase yield for more diverse crops. The trend is toward precision irrigation, which uses a variety of technologies from robotics and drones for planting, cultivation, and harvesting to the design of large, centralized pumping stations.

One of the newest techniques is variable rate irrigation that uses a combination of software and hardware to irrigate the right amount of water to specific areas of a field. Data from sensors monitoring soil moisture, weather stations, and other user-defined information helps optimize water use for savings of 10 - 15 percent and energy savings of 10 - 20 percent.

"It used to take 30 to 40 people to manage 10,000 acres," said Ziari. "Now one person can run it using a mobile app."

Irrigation can also be used to help balance the power system through pumped storage--especially micro storage, demand response, and small hydro generation.

The Council and the Bonneville Power Administration are working together to quantify the value of demand response, and the Council is bringing stakeholders together to share ideas on how to overcome barriers to implementing it. "Pilot projects would be a good start," said Ziari. "We should be leading the world in this area."

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