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Stories from the valley

Saving Water in the Vineyard – for 30 years!

Contributed by Tim Johnson

Those in agriculture employ some of the most advanced water saving technology available, all in an effort to apply just the right amount of water to a crop. Our small 25-acre family vineyard in the Sierra Foothills benefits from the use of these tools and we use them every year – but especially in this forth year of drought.

The patriarch of the family, Lloyd Walker, a former aerospace engineer, was an early adopter. For more than 40 years he has been using various technologies to help him irrigate the zinfandel, barbera and chardonnay grapes on the ranch.

The first tools were tensiometers – devices that measure how much pressure it takes to pull water out of a sealed tube and into the dry soil. He had them in each block of the vineyard to determine exactly when to turn on the sprinklers.

Irrigation Management SystemLater he was one of the growers in our county to pioneer a comprehensive water saving program with the El Dorado Irrigation District called the Irrigation Management System. In this program, irrigation district staff measure the amount of water in the soil weekly with neutron probes and provide us a report that includes soil moisture, historic charts, evapo–transpiration (ET) rates and recommends when the next irrigation should be scheduled and how much water should be applied. The district reports that this program saves them 2,000 acre–feet of water a year – enough to serve 4,800 homes.

Moisture Sensor DataIn the last year, we have added our own system of moisture sensors that allow us to take real time readings at multiple points in the vineyard. In addition, we have probes a varying depths to understand the soil moisture at the vines roots. The data can be called up at anytime from our own wireless network.

The final piece of technology that has found its way to our vineyard is a CIMIS site. CIMIS is the California Irrigation Management Information System. It’s a network of weather stations that measures humidity, rain, and wind and estimates the amount of water used by a crop, in our case wine grapes. The site Diamond Springs Station 228 sits on the corner of our vineyard. We provide a mowed, irrigated pasture so the site can measure an average ET rate and we then convert it to wine grapes.

Five years ago we completed a big upgrade in water use efficiency by converting the vineyard from overhead sprinklers to drip. This one changed reduced water use by 20 percent.

So even before the drought, we were able to know just when the vines needed water and apply a specific number of gallons right to the roots. The result has been important water savings and great fruit for our winemakers.

With water savings more important that ever, these tools help us do our part to use every gallon wisely.