Peering down on California’s water problems

10/08/2010 12:15:48 PM
Don Schrack

A coalition of some of the nation’s best scientific and agricultural minds is designed to give California grower-shippers a boost of irrigation water.

The coalition is looking at the issue from a variety of viewpoints, including from space.

The coalition’s project is funded by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which is teamed with its Ames Research Center, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Other partners include Western Growers, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), the Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plus a handful of California State University researchers, water districts, irrigation consultants and growers.

“Our primary goal is to develop tools for the agricultural community to increase the accessibility and usefulness of satellite data for making irrigation management decisions,” said Forest Melton, a scientist with NASA.

The agency’s satellites regularly fly over California’s crop-producing regions, gathering images and data that can be used for a variety of agricultural applications.

The proposed system is designed to integrate weekly satellite-derived data, Melton said.

“Results to date indicate that weekly observations of crop canopy conditions are adequate to characterize changes in crop coefficients,” Melton said. “However, one of the strengths of this approach is that observations can be obtained from multiple satellites, and we’re evaluating integration of observations from other satellites to increase the frequency at which crop conditions could be mapped.”

The core of the project is determining crop specific evapotranspiration (ET) rates, which is the process by which water evaporates from the soil surface and is transpired by plants.

A program that could provide crop specific ET rates would not solve the state’s water woes, but would be another tool, grower-shippers said.

“It has the potential to be very helpful and to provide more precise information for growers,” said Sonia Salas, science and technology manager for Western Growers. “That’s the beauty of it.”

The California Irrigation Management Information System — CIMIS — already provides regional ET rates, said Kent Frame, senior land and water use scientist and CIMIS program manager for the integrated water management division of DWR. Under development, he said, is computer software that could interpret satellite imagery, insert remotely sensed surface data and then combine ET with a crop coefficient to come up with crop specific information.


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