Capital Press | Water Capital Press Tue, 24 Apr 2018 05:34:36 -0400 en Capital Press | Water High-efficiency irrigation pays off Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:15:33 -0400 CRAIG REED Irrigation is all about getting water to thirsty plants and trees, from hay fields to orchards to row crops.

To accomplish that as efficiently as possible, farmers and ranchers have changed their methods through the years. When those methods are efficient, there are multiple benefits for the grower: Increased tonnage, improved quality, less water and power waste resulting in lower costs for those two, and possibly a higher price for the crop.

Low elevation precision application (LEPA) and low elevation sprinkler application (LESA) are two of the most recent irrigation methods that are being promoted in the Pacific Northwest.

“With water and power costs, these methods should catch on fast,” said Greg Mohnen, president of the Oregon Hay and Forage Association and manager of hay production for the McGinnis Ranch near Bend, Ore.

Another low elevation irrigation method is the drip system. It’s not new, having been used for many years in orchards where wheel lines and pivots can’t be used. Drip irrigation allows the soil to absorb the water, eliminating any evaporation or runoff.

The LEPA and LESA irrigation methods have been used on the Great Plains of the Midwest and farther east for the past 20 or so years, but they have only been promoted out west for the past few years.

Unlike hand lines, wheel lines and pivot systems where sprinkler heads stand upright and spray water high into the air, the LEPA and LESA systems use a much closer-to-the-ground approach to getting water to the soil and plant roots. LEPA features tubes hanging down from a pivot with nozzles, 12 to 18 inches off the ground, releasing a stream of water. LESA uses the same down setup off a pivot, but the nozzles spray from about 12 inches off the ground.

Mylen Bohle, a forage agronomist with the Oregon State University Extension Service office in Prineville, Ore., said these two methods provide 96 to 97 percent water efficiency because there is minimal wind drift and evaporation of the water.

There is a cost in the thousands of dollars, depending on the acreage, to make the conversion, but it has been proven the results will cover the cost in a year or two.

In addition to the Extension Service, many Pacific Northwest electric cooperatives are promoting LEPA and LESA.

Dale Anderson of Big Bend Electric Cooperative in Ritzville, Wash., said he knows of a hay grower who upgraded two of his pivots, but not a third. On his fourth cutting of hay for the season, the fields with the upgraded pivots produced a ton more per acre than the older pivot.

“The farmer said I could have paid for the upgrades with that extra ton,” Anderson said.

Bohle said a Prineville area hay grower increased his quantity to 5.4 tons an acre with the LEPA system after upgrading from a mid-elevation sprinkler application system that had been producing 2 tons an acre.

In addition to less water and power being used, and less evaporation of water, other benefits of these new systems include less lodging (plants tipping over because of water weight and pressure on their leaves) and possibly less disease from standing water on leaves (research is ongoing to confirm this belief).

For the pumps that power these irrigation systems, switching to a smaller one is an option because the LEPA and LESA systems don’t require as much water pressure. Powering a smaller pump is a cost savings. Or there is the possibility that a larger pump can replace two smaller pumps and result in overall savings.

Variable frequency drives can also be installed to improve the efficiency of the electric turbine pumps. The VFDs can be programmed to monitor both the power supplied to the pump and the speed of the motor, decreasing both when needed and resulting in more cost savings.

For hay growers who are members of electric co-ops, those co-ops will provide field audits to help analyze agricultural operations and to help create long-term plans for properties.

“We provide incentive packages … replacing wheel lines with pivots, replacing sprinklers with nozzles, replacing gaskets, those types of things,” said Lynn Culp of Surprise Valley Electric Cooperative in Alturas, Calif.

“There’s some really exciting technology out there,” Bohle said. “There is a big capital outlay so that might be the reason not to change, but the benefits are proven. I do believe as the word gets out, it’ll be like a snowball rolling down a snowy hill and change will be rapid.”

Sprinklers give more control over irrigation Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:13:45 -0400 Hear Smith Thomas Travis Youngberg grew up on a farm between Payette and Weiser, Idaho, farming with his father. He now rents some of his father’s fields and an adjacent field. He has farmed this rented piece for 6 years, raising dairy alfalfa hay with wheat as a rotation.

“This particular field has a bit of slope. Flood irrigating wasn’t efficient, especially with all the gopher holes,” said Youngberg.

The irrigation headgate was also leaking, ready to wash out. Part of the field is lower, and the previous renter jury-rigged some old sprinkler pipe through the ditch bank to drop water down to that piece in a lower ditch, irrigating it with tail water.

“It was difficult to water that part because it was hard to adjust, and only received tail water from the other portion. I never knew when it was going to get there,” he said.

A 40-foot bank along one side was another challenge. If a gopher made a hole in the tail ditch, the bank would erode. He needed a better way to irrigate the field and thwart erosion.

After the first year of trying to irrigate that field he talked to the landowner about utilizing a government program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service to do it.

“I got some cost estimates, and my landlord liked the sound of it, realizing it would help the field,” said Youngberg.

The cost-share program made it feasible.

“I applied for the program and agreed to do some water management and nutrient-management related practices, to help with funding opportunities,” he said. For three years he did water and nutrient management after putting in the sprinkler system.

Engineers at NRCS helped design the irrigation system and checked it out after it was installed. Crop yields have increased.

Before, with flood irrigation, there was no way to water the field evenly, especially with the gopher problem.

“Parts of the field I just couldn’t get wet, and I also had to be careful on the edges so I didn’t get too close to the bank and wash it out — and the landlord’s road,” said Youngberg.

He kept the water quite a ways away from the edge and sacrificed a lot of that area for crops. The middle of the field also had dry areas because of gophers. He tried trapping them but more came back.

After he switched to sprinklers he could water the crop right to the edge, and manage the irrigation better.

“With flood irrigation you have to wait longer to get the water all the way to the bottom of the field. By the time you get it there, you’ve really soaked the top; you can’t give it a light irrigation. When cutting alfalfa every 28 days, I want to get the water across quickly and get it off so the ground will be dry enough.”

With flood irrigation some of the top would still be wet.

“The crop might need a little more water at the bottom, but I couldn’t do that because it took too long to get across the field — and by the time I was ready to cut it, it was too late. Timing on dairy hay is very critical, so I had to let it run a little bit out of water. I was stressing the crop because I didn’t have enough time to get across it, and lost some tonnage,” Youngberg said.

“Now with the sprinklers I can run a 12-hour set and just do a light irrigation if I need to, and adjust it to however many hours it needs,” he said.

The field now yields much better than any of his flood-irrigated fields, while using less water.

Irrigating cranberries by phone Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:12:22 -0400 Gail Oberst Port Orford, Ore. — Nick Puhl, 29, hadn’t intended to be a cranberry grower. After training in computer numerically controlled machining — known as CNC — he went to work building helicopter, jet and car parts.

But in 2009, when his father, Ron, lost a series of farm managers, he moved back home to Port Orford to help manage Cape Blanco Cranberries. Part of the farmland has been in his family’s hands since the early 1900s. His father put in cranberries in 1992.

“They needed me, so I came back,” Nick shrugged. He brought with him skills he picked up from the CNC world. Today, those modern innovations save time for workers at Cape Blanco Cranberries, his family’s company, but they also improve the crop’s quality, reduce water use and save time.

Among those innovations are gadgets that allow Nick to control his pumps from his cell phone. Nick can check water, soil and weather conditions during the growing season at a website that gathers and stores the data relayed from the beds and pumps. He can then decide which beds need water — each pump controls about 5 acres of irrigation. From anywhere in cell range, with a swipe and a tap on his smart phone, he can turn on the appropriate pump — and viola! Water saved, cranberries happy.

This was especially handy during the 2017 growing season, a dry and hot one during which water became scarce.

Cranberry growers typically capture rainwater throughout the year in ponds that are used for irrigation during spring and summer, and for flooding and floating the berries during harvest. Even wet Cape Blanco, with an average annual rainfall of about 76 inches, saw a water shortage, Nick said.

Water conservation, as well as his father’s foresight to build larger storage ponds, got them through the summer.

So happy were his eight varieties of cranberries in 2017 that harvest lasted into December, the peak of the cranberry-eating season. Nick took a moment to be proud: “Nobody else delivers fresh-picked, fresh-packed cranberries this time of year.”

Specific watering practices, among other innovative techniques, allow the cranberries to remain on the vine longer, developing a deep red color, higher sugars and lower acids.

The south coast’s mild climate provides a longer growing season and promotes the berry’s color and flavor. On Dec. 19, when Nick harvested his last beds, the temperature had been in the high 40s and 50s all week. Wisconsin, which grows more than 60 percent of the nation’s cranberries, typically ends harvests in mid-October and was already below freezing on Dec. 19.

With financial and technical help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and its Environmental Quality Incentives Program — known as EQIP — Cape Blanco Cranberries has installed upgrades on nine pumps for 45 of his 80 acres split between Bandon and Port Orford. An automated system, which can cycle water on and off as needed based on temperature readings, can reduce water and energy use by up to 50 percent, according to Eric Moeggenberg, the district conservationist for the Coos and Curry county NRCS office.

The pumps also monitor their own efficiency — checking the pressure and flow, then report it back to a data-collection and irrigation control website. When he sees a pump problem, Nick can fix it immediately. Before, problems might have gone unnoticed, wasting water.

“We’re pretty fortunate that I know how to do that sort of thing,” Nick said. He’s not stingy with his skills. The extra time allows him to do extra work for other farmers and machinists on computer-controlled machinery for their beds and machinery.

The radio or computer-controlled pumps and irrigation are not the farm’s only innovations. The Puhls are also replacing old vines — the perennials can last up to a century — with new vines that are DNA-certified, adding more value to their fruit, and better production.

For more information about the data-collection website and software, MeasureTek, visit For information about EQIP, visit, or your local Soil and Water Conservation District office.

Culvert project a win-win for ranchers Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:11:22 -0400 Gail Oberst Cattle ranchers and timberland owners Andy and Maryrae Thomson had a problem.

Eber Creek, on their property west of Eugene, Ore., annually flooded the road to their timberland. The culprits? Two culverts that were too small to handle the creek’s winter flow. The small culverts also blocked access to native cutthroat trout and other fish species in the Long Tom River drainage.

Long Tom Watershed Council to the rescue: The council gathered funds for a project that paid to replace the culverts with a sturdy bridge, serving both purposes: The Thomsons, whose ancestors had farmed the land since 1881, improved their business, and the trout could access the upper reaches of the creek. Andy Thomson touted his success to neighbors, many of whom joined in improving 4.5 stream miles by replacing similar barriers.

With variations, the Thomsons’ tale could be repeated dozens of times among Oregon’s 90 some watershed councils. For the past 20 years, farmers, ranchers, foresters and other landowners have worked with local councils on projects that serve to improve agricultural businesses while providing habitat.

“We’re looking for the win-win,” said Shawn Morford, the executive director of the Network of Oregon Watershed Councils, based in Salem.

The Network is one of four organizations that make up the Oregon Conservation Partnership, which also includes the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, representing the state’s 45 Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and the coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, representing Oregon’s 17 land trusts, plus the Oregon Conservation Education and Assistance Network, the education arm of the Partnership. Although watershed councils, conservation districts and land trusts have their own unique missions and resources, they all work with agricultural and other landowners who voluntarily join in conservation projects.

The Network helps strengthen watershed councils by providing training and technical and scientific information to their staff and leaders, connecting them with funding sources, and providing resources such as policy and procedure templates.

In turn, watershed councils funnel state, federal, and private funding to their communities for ecosystem restoration, monitoring, and education. According to, a website that tracks watershed restoration projects, in the five years from 2010 to 2014, there were 3,371 watershed council projects in the state, representing an investment of more than $293 million. Of that, 41 percent came from state lottery funds, an equal amount from federal, city and county funds, and the rest from landowners’ contributions. In 2010-11, for example, those projects made 356 miles of streams accessible to fish migration, according to the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, a state agency that helps fund many of the councils.

“Oregon’s watershed council model is unique and often envied by other states,” Morford said.

Council members focus on the area of land that Morford refers to as the “ridgetop to ridgetop” — that is, the land that includes the waterways that start as small streams and eventually flow into a major river.

“It’s the job of a council to hold a birds-eye view of a watershed. They assess the health of the watershed and collectively set priorities for restoring the waterways and improving fish passage.”

Unlike regulatory bodies, councils count on voluntary cooperation among landowners, other agencies and community groups to accomplish their missions. 

“Councils work hand-in-hand with landowners who want to do the right thing, to protect their own resources,” Morford said. 

Farmers, ranchers and foresters interested in improving water quality and fish habitat as part of their projects can contact their local watershed councils for ideas. Visit for local phone numbers and websites.

Israel develops water-conscious culture Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:09:52 -0400 Sheryl Harris Israel knows water. Or, more accurately, the nation perched in one of the driest regions of the world has developed cutting-edge ways of dealing with a lack of water.

From developing ways to conserve water to building some of the largest desalination plants in the world to convert sea water into drinking water, Israeli engineers have developed innovative ways to produce and reuse its most precious resource.

Israel is about the size of New Jersey. About one-third of its land is arable. Within that area, it receives about as much rain as Arizona, about 15 inches a year.

For Americans, water is the elephant in the living room. “Water is such a crucial issue, and nobody is talking about it” in the U.S., said Jewish National Fund Communications Director Adam Brill. The fund raises money to develop reservoirs that supply about 10 percent of Israel’s water.

To provide water for the nation’s 8.5 million people and the farms that grow their food, Israelis have developed a national infrastructure to manage the resource.

Israel has only one water authority: the national government. Because of its single water authority, Israel is able to use a nationwide system to deliver water from reserves and treatment plants to where it is needed.

Water is also priced to reflect its value and the cost of maintaining and monitoring pipelines. The price of potable water is $7.70 for 100 cubic feet. That’s nearly 10 times the price of water in Las Vegas, another desert area.

Another important component is education. “Our children are our most important ‘crop,’” said Alon Melamed, irrigation manager at Kibbutz Kinneret in northern Israel. Nearly 700 Israelis work on the collective farm, which grows a variety of crops and operates a dairy. Water conservation education may officially begin in kindergarten, but it also begins long before that because of what children see in the home, he said.

Israel has a multi-faceted strategy for water: production, conservation, technology and reuse.

In 2010 the nation drilled three wells to tap aquifers nearly a mile deep. Once treated to remove the naturally occurring caustic compounds, the water extends plant and fish seasons, irrigates vineyards and crops, increases the Jordan River’s flow and raises the level of the Sea of Galilee.

Five of the world’s largest desalination plants are in Israel, providing 35 percent of its water. They use a process called reverse osmosis to convert water from the Mediterranean Sea into potable water. An Israeli company, IDE Technologies, also designed and built the Western Hemisphere’s largest desalination plant, near Carlsbad, Calif. It provides 50 million gallons of fresh water a day to the San Diego County Water Authority, supplying 7 percent of its needs.

Almost 90 percent of Israel’s wastewater is recycled, providing about half of what is required for agriculture. Reclaimed water is also used for industry.

That compares to California, which recycles 13 percent of its wastewater.

Israel also uses “smart” technology that monitors plumbing and locates leaks early; 100 percent of all the water used in every household is measured.

Israel has also developed drought-resistant seeds and plants that thrive in desert conditions. Some are already used already in the U.S. Shorter wheat produces 35 percent more grain per acre than full-size wheat.

Drip irrigation also reduces water use and can be managed almost plant by plant.

Covers are also used to shield orchards from the direct sun. “Orchard cover lengthens plant life, conserves water and improves the climate for the plants,” said Melamed, the irrigation manager. It also lengthens the shelf life of fruit, he said.

“Until you change the real culture of how you use and manage water, you’re not going to get anywhere,” said Brill of the Jewish National Fund.

Nursery makes every drop count Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:08:29 -0400 Gail Oberst WOODBURN, Ore. — Tom Fessler of Woodburn Nursery and Azaleas wasn’t raised on the wrong side of the tracks. In fact, the tracks run right through his family’s property — 2,000 acres of nursery, grass seed and row crops.

But, Fessler noted, he and his four siblings were raised on the wrong side of the river. Had his great-grandparents settled just a few hundred yards closer to the Pudding River, the family’s focus on conserving water might not have been so intense. The Fesslers grew up with inventions that save water and money on one of Oregon’s largest nursery operations.

The nursery that was established in 1968 by Tom’s parents, Bob and Jean, sells wholesale nationwide and in Canada. Woodburn Nursery stock can be found at garden centers, Safeway and Costco, to name a few.

Most of the water used in the nursery operation is pulled from wells on the property, and from tributaries of Zollner Creek, which flows into the Pudding River. Because water is in short supply, waste is not an option in his greenhouses and fields, Fessler said. Since 1986, five years before the state passed rules to encourage water reuse, Woodburn Nursery began installing French drain systems that rerouted used water on the greenhouse floors into collection pipes and then to filtration systems.

“Everywhere we water, we collect it and reuse it,” Fessler said.

Today, with many more water-saving measures added to its tool belt, Woodburn Nursery’s operation is recycling 60 to 70 percent of the water it uses.

Is it saving the farm lots of money?

Fessler shrugs, and puns: “It’s probably a wash.” The recycling equipment and the costs for treatment eat up any savings on potential water purchases, if additional water were available, which it is not. Reuse is essential.

More importantly, water reuse and conservation has allowed the company to grow without additional water.

For example, Woodburn Nursery’s pot-in-pot tree and shrub cultivation, which has expanded since the year 2000 to about 250 acres, utilizes a “drip” system that delivers to each plant a precise amount of water and nutrients, eliminating overwatering. The system also reduces the muddy mess and extra work of ball and burlap harvests. Fessler said the business has maintained 200 employees for the past 15 years while doubling sales — another form of conservation.

Automation has aided the company’s ability to measure and reuse water, but human managers are still the nursery’s most important assets, Fessler said. Their eyes are on the product daily. Computerization came early to the farm, in 1988, and today is taking over a portion of the overhead sprinkling system, which responds to heat and sunlight. The newest sunlight-driven system in the greenhouse is replacing timed automatic sprinkling that is less efficient.

Fessler said his father’s innovations and attention to quality has inspired his children — all of whom are partners in the farm — to act likewise.

The nursery world has taken note: Bob Fessler was awarded a lifetime membership to the Oregon Association of Nurseries for his contributions to the industry, including an endowment that sponsors scholarships from OAN’s foundation. Tom Fessler, and now his son, Kyle, have served as officers of OAN. Awards abound for the family’s efforts in business and their communities.

Carefully, Tom unwraps the newest gadget he’s looking at, aimed at reducing water use even more: a compact soil moisture sensor that can alert managers if plants are over- or under-watered. Will he buy it? He’s not sure, he said. “But the more information we can get, the better decisions we can make.”

Farmer goes underground with drip irrigation Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:07:25 -0400 Hear Smith Thomas Water is the lifeblood of agriculture in the arid West. Some crops require more water than others, and when water supplies are short it takes innovation to provide adequate moisture.

Kirk Vickery grows a variety of crops in a rotation system on his farm on the Emmett Bench in western Idaho. He has farmed in that area all his life, having grown up on a farm nearby. He currently grows mint, corn and alfalfa, and flood irrigation was inadequate for some of these crops during the hotter, drier months.

“The Emmett Irrigation District where we get our water is a continuous flow system and we are only allotted a certain amount, like three-quarters of an inch to 1 inch per acre, and it is strictly regulated,” he says.

This was one of the main reasons he decided to change to drip irrigation, to conserve water and make sure he had enough for his crops. This was a way to make the water go farther and use it more efficiently.

“Mint takes a lot of water in June and July, and that’s when corn and alfalfa need a lot of water also. We didn’t have enough water to grow the crops we wanted,” he explains.

Most of the time he had to rotate one-third of his acres to something like wheat that doesn’t take as much water during June and July. In 2013 he changed to the drip system on some of his fields so he could grow more mint.

“Onion growers have been using drip irrigation for several years, but there were only a few people using it for crops like mint. I looked at their systems to see what they had done,” Vickery said.

Clearwater Supply in Ontario, Ore., sold him the materials and helped with the design.

“My family and I installed it. The pumping station includes a sand media filter that cleans the water. It’s a pressurized system, but drip irrigation runs at only about 10 to 12 pounds of pressure, compared to a sprinkler system that could be anywhere from 30 to 60 pounds,” he said.

The drip system requires a much smaller pump with less horsepower and less volume, because less water is needed.

“You don’t have any evaporation loss. Our allotted water comes into this permanent drip line that we buried 8 inches. We can still do crop rotation, planting the new crop right over the drip lines,” he explains.

He has planted several different crops since he installed the permanent system. The buried line percolates water into the root zone of the plants — where it’s needed.

“The water moves up through the soil as well as down and laterally. Most of the roots are down there, where the water is,” he said.

This is efficient, but also presents some challenges, such as germination of the crop since there is no water at the surface.

“You have to plant perennial crops or an annual crop in the spring when you have nature’s help with more ground moisture,” he says. “The other option, which we’ve done with mint, is to give it some temporary help with a sprinkler for a short time until it takes root, just to get it started.”

After the crop is established, drip irrigation works well. He has used it on mint, corn, triticale, sorghum, sudan and alfalfa. With newer tillage methods a person seldom has to disrupt the underground lines.

If anything goes wrong underground, however, you have to find and repair the problem. Not as much can go wrong with it compared to an over-ground system, except gophers.

“We have to be very diligent about gopher control. They can really disrupt the underground lines,” Vickery says.

“A big benefit of drip irrigation is nutrient management. You can place nutrients in the root zone in a soluble form where plants can easily and immediately take it up; you can add them to the water at the proper growth stage of the plant,” he said.

The local Natural Resources Conservation Service district had a tour of his farm a few years ago, to show other farmers how well it was working.

Permanent water systems help ranchers quench cows’ thirst Thu, 1 Feb 2018 11:05:10 -0400 Dianna Troyer Frustrated with constantly hauling water to his thirsty cows, Jed Heaton brainstormed about ways to eliminate the tedious chore.

With polyethylene pipe, massive tire troughs, valves, and floats, he installed a permanent watering system on his ranch south of Malta, Idaho near the Utah border.

“Through word-of-mouth, we started helping other ranchers develop springs and ponds into permanent watering systems,” said Heaton, who started Range Water Solutions and Supplies in 2001.

Since then, he and his crew have installed watering systems in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Oregon. Often he works in conjunction with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other grazing improvement programs, using the agency’s range improvement guidelines.

“We never thought it would get this big,” said Heaton, of the family-owned company, nicknamed by his son Tykus three years ago.

His work season starts in April and ends in December.

One of his biggest jobs was in northeastern Utah near Randolph, where he installed a system so ranchers would have a reliable water source.

“We laid 50,000 feet of 3-inch mainline pipe and grouped 20 tire troughs together, in sets of three, with a float controlling them, so they fill level,” he said.

On some jobs, he has installed as many as six troughs on one float in one location, so the float controls storage of 9,600 gallons of water.

His wife, Meshia, does the bookkeeping.

“People tell me they like Jed’s work because he knows how a cow thinks and can recommend the best place to put the troughs or ponds and how to configure the pipes,” said Meshia. “Plus, he has a reputation for doing a quick and quality job.”

He uses high density polyethylene pipe that can be fused together at the joints with a McElroy welder.

“That joint is amazingly strong,” he said. “You can beat on it, and it won’t break.”

The circular troughs are durable, too, because they are made from tires that were used on massive gold mining equipment. The tires are about 12 feet tall and 5 feet wide.

“We get them and cut them in half, so they’re about 27 inches tall,” he said. “They’re great because unlike metal troughs they won’t rust, dent, or spring a leak. When we put them in, we laser level the ground, so water is level in the trough.”

Heaton buys semi-truck loads of pipe and other supplies to last the season. If ranchers want to install their own systems, he gives advice and sells them what they need.

“These systems will last for a long time with little maintenance.”