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Texas A&M Agrilife tackles water conservation

20130610 Agrilife-water-irrigation-Enciso AF  9050MISSION—Since the early 1900s, farmers have always had an abundance of cheap water, according to Rod Santa Ana, communication specialist for the Texas A&M Agrilife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco. Since that time, flood irrigation has always been commonplace, but at the same time very wasteful, he said.

In times of drought, water shortages present problems for farmers and their crops. Texas A&M Agrilife has worked with farmers for years, providing research and better methods for delivering life-giving water to sun-baked fields in South Texas.

Texas A&M Agrilife Research and Texas A&M Agrilife Extension are both housed in Weslaco but handle two separate jobs. While research studies agriculture, extension disseminates that research information to the public.

With the current drought conditions in the Rio Grande Valley, not only are residents in municipalities affected, but farmers and their crops are threatened as well. Santa Ana said this year farmers would see the smallest crop of cotton in years.

“Water escapes…it gets away from you, it evaporates,” Santa Ana said. “It’s just a very inefficient way to irrigate crops.”

Santa Ana explained staff at the center researches different ways to conserve water. Juan Enciso, Ph.D, PE works as an irrigation engineer at the center. He explained that 80 percent of water in the local reserves is used by farmers for agricultural use.

“We are developing a website providing information to the farmers and the cities,” Enciso said. “We want to tell them how much water is in use. Sometimes, farmers and people in the cities tend to over irrigate.”

The website is already available for farmers and community members to access, but Enciso said it is a work in progress.

At the center, Enciso explained they have fields with different crops including: corn, cotton, sugarcane, vegetables, papaya and watermelon. He said each crop needs different amounts of water to survive and the amount of water needed also varies depending on the month.

On site, some of the crops use drip irrigation, which has become the norm for many farmers. Enciso, who has spent most of his time studying and working with drip irrigation, explained that by using drip irrigation farmers either have to pump water from a river or keep a small reservoir.

“Sometimes, farmers cannot irrigate at the same time, they have to take turns. There is not enough capacity to irrigate at the same time,” Enciso said. “Farmers have to talk with the irrigation district. There are 23 irrigation districts in the Valley. Drip irrigation needs a continuous supply of water, it’s a little bit of water…but it needs to continue.”

Drip irrigation isn’t the only new development farmers have been using, Enciso said the irrigation districts have lined canals to minimize the loss of water, plastic pipe systems are being used to water crops and farmers have leveled their fields.

According to Enciso’s profile on the center’s website efficient water use is also created by the monitoring of crops while using flood irrigation, sprinkler irrigation and drip irrigation (surface and subsurface). Depending on the crop, irrigation can be scheduled at different times and can have added nutrients or fertilizers to help conserve water.

Santa Ana said Enciso has assisted in perfecting watering schedules for farmers, taking into account that certain development stages of the crop require more water than others.

“A grant was received recently to set up weather stations, this will help growers know what their irrigation needs are,” Santa Ana said.

The center has weather stations that estimate the amount of rain that has fallen, wind speed, the minimum and maximum temperature and relative humidity. They hope to extend the stations to Rio Grande City, Harlingen, Brownsville and keep two in Weslaco.

The weather stations provide information to the center’s website, but is only an estimation. Enciso said having this information helps farmers know how much water the soil has received after rain, the wind speed required for the adding of pesticides and humidity.

The engineer said plants are like humans; when it is hot, a person sweats. Likewise, plants are affected when the temperature and humidity changes. Enciso said students are testing some of the newest technology on the market to assist farmers in understanding what their soil needs.

Sensors have been developed to measure the amount of water in crop soil, this will assist farmers in understanding the amount of water their crops need and make it easily accessible through an Internet connection. Once perfected, the sensors will allow farmers to access soil data on their mobile phones.

“To monitor the water content in soil, they have to use weather data… to see if it rained so they don’t apply water,” Enciso said. “ We are trying to develop a system for them to use and we are working on that. It’s like any other thing, things improve with time.”

For more information from the Texas A&M Agrilife Research and Extension Center visit weslaco.tamu.edu.

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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