ETNA, Calif. — Farming in the Scott Valley on the northern edge of California, Jim Morris understands the importance of saving water.

Morris, a cattle, sheep and hay producer whose farm, now the Bryan-Morris Ranch, has been in his wife’s family since 1856, is working with University of California researchers on a couple of water-conservation projects.

In one, he hangs micro-sprinklers from a section of his standard center-pivot irrigation system and compares how his alfalfa field responds to the two types of watering. So far, the section with the micro-sprinklers is showing better yields while wasting less water, he said.

In the other, Morris has permission to take stormwater from a local water district’s irrigation canal and use it in one of his fields to replenish the aquifer. He’s one of numerous growers throughout California doing groundwater-recharge projects in various crop fields with the help of UC Cooperative Extension advisers.

“I’m president of the Scott Valley Irrigation District, and we want to do what we can to benefit the community around us” through water savings, Morris said. “Sometimes we (growers) feel like we have a target on our back, and when we do these things it helps to reduce that target.”

Morris demonstrated the projects for about 50 other growers during a field day on his ranch Aug. 27, sponsored by the UCCE and local cattlemen.

Water conflicts are nothing new to Morris and other growers along the Scott River, a key tributary to the beleaguered Klamath River and spawning ground for endangered salmon. Low levels in the Scott have triggered legal challenges by tribes and environmentalists and led to state restrictions on irrigation.

Amid the drought, researchers throughout the West have been seeking alternatives to the high, overhead sprinklers used by center-pivot systems. Among them are low-energy precision and spray applications, which have been adopted by many growers in the Pacific Northwest.

Morris is testing low-elevation spray applications which lower pivot-arm spray heads to just above the crops, lessening loss of water to wind drift and evaporation. He said the sprinklers have enabled him to get 20 percent more water directly to his plants and achieve about 20 percent more growth than the plants watered conventionally.

For the groundwater-recharge project in the past two late winters and early springs, Morris has applied different amounts of water to different sections of a field to test the tolerance of his alfalfa to the practice.

The trials found that applications of as much as 28 feet of water in February and March showed no discernible effect on alfalfa yield, demonstrating that alfalfa fields could work for groundwater-recharge projects if grown on suitable, well-draining soils.

“This concept has a lot of promise,” said Steve Orloff, a UCCE farm adviser and county director based in Yreka, Calif. “We could potentially do this on about 300,000 acres of alfalfa in California, although we won’t do that because we’d have to have infrastructure and (an easing of) regulations.”

In the Scott Valley, replenishing the aquifer in the winter could help river levels later in the season, Orloff and Morris said.

“This won’t (completely) solve our water problems in the Scott Valley, but it could improve flows,” Orloff said.

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