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Pictured checking a new meter station are members of The Dalles Irrigation District’s Save Water Save Energy project planning team (from left): Tom Bailey, Tim Dahle, Mike Richardson, Lynn Long, Merlin Berg, and Casey Pink. Jac le Roux and Mike Omeg are not pictured.

Pictured checking a new meter station are members of The Dalles Irrigation District’s Save Water Save Energy project planning team (from left): Tom Bailey, Tim Dahle, Mike Richardson, Lynn Long, Merlin Berg, and Casey Pink. Jac le Roux and Mike Omeg are not pictured.

A visit to Australia opened Tim Dahle’s eyes to how intensely other arid fruit-growing regions are managing water and made him think about how fellow growers in Oregon might adopt new technology to use water more efficiently.

Dahle is a cherry grower and board member of The Dalles Irrigation District in Oregon. The district supplies about 88 growers who farm a total of 5,600 acres. The district began pumping water in 1966, and many of its flow meters at delivery points need replacing.

Dahle began working intently about five years ago on the idea of finding help to pay for upgrading the meters. He put together a committee to write grant proposals, but at first was unable to find sufficient financial support. “We looked high and low for partners,” he recalled.

But as the new technology became more affordable and the grant writing efforts continued, the irrigation district was able to partner with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Bonneville Power Administration to cover equipment costs and provide technical expertise. The Wy’East Resource Conservation and Development Council, in Oregon, provided grant-writing expertise.  Funding from the nrcs came through its Cooperative Partnership Initiative and Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, which provide assistance to landowners and farmers for projects that promote ­agricultural production and environmental quality as compatible goals.

The old-fashioned propeller flow meters are being replaced with state-of-the-art digital meters that are more accurate, are easier to read, and have a higher capacity. The new meters can be read remotely via radio telemetry on a computer or phone, whereas to read the old meters, growers or irrigation district personnel have to go look inside a locked delivery vault. Mike Richardson, manager of The Dalles Irrigation District, said that the new meters allow both growers and the district to have online access to flow data that will be updated every 15 minutes. The old meters are physically read four times a year.

Advantages

Dahle said the new meters have several advantages. Accurate, real-time measurements allow growers to make sure they don’t exceed their allotted water use. The district has little storage capacity, and, because they didn’t have good data before, growers erred on the low side to avoid inadvertently shutting down the pumping station by withdrawing too much water. Richardson said more accurate and frequent readings will allow them to use more of their water without the risk of shutting down the station.

The larger capacity of the meters—300 gallons per minute versus 200 gallons for the propeller-type meter—together with increased water availability means growers can irrigate their farms more quickly and in larger blocks, Dahle said.

However, a focus of the project—required by the funders —is also to conserve water and power. Dahle said the district’s water is pumped from the Columbia River to an elevation of 900 feet, before being delivered to users by gravity feed, so it takes a tremendous amount of energy to pump the water up. The district, which has eight pumping plants and uses 18 million kilowatts a year, hopes to cut its power and water use by 15 percent.

The “Save Water Save Energy” project, as it’s known, also involves installing soil moisture sensors at a rate of about one per ten acres or less. Participating growers commit to using a Web-based scientific irrigation scheduling system. Data from the sensors is relayed by wireless telemetry using the infrastructure of the area’s weather station network (IFPnet). The data are used in the online irrigation scheduling model to determine the optimal timing and amount of water to apply, based on actual water use. Local irrigation consultant Jac le Roux is ­working with growers on the scheduling.

Half

About half of the irrigation district users are enrolled in the program so far, but sign-ups will continue for a couple more years. During the past winter, the district installed the first 38 new flow meters and 96 soil moisture probes. There’s the potential to replace 235 flow meters and install more than 500 soil moisture probes. The district must replace the worn, high-maintenance meters, whether with grant money or not.

Richardson said this is a tough time in the cherry industry and many growers have not been making the money they once did. “It’s a good time to be able to have some grant money to do things they need to do,” he said. “It helps ease that burden. When you have less money to work with, that’s the time that other partners with money are important to you.

“We could not have done it financially without them,” he said, adding that the  encouragement and technical assistance that the NRCS and BPA provided has also been invaluable.

Dahle said the project committee showed talent and perseverance. “There’s been a lot of excitement about this throughout the NRCS and with other utilities as a model of how to get something done and to gain efficiencies for their operations.”

Richardson agreed. “Everyone’s looking over our shoulder to see how it goes.”