Federal grant to help water-use efficiency in South Texas

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WESLACO –  The Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco has been awarded part of a nationwide $5.3 million Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research irrigation expert.

The South Texas center will receive $233,000 to “develop guidelines for managing irrigation under drought conditions and computer programs for linking weather stations with irrigation scheduling,” according to Dr. Juan Enciso, an irrigation engineer in Weslaco.

“The main purpose of the program funded by this grant is to develop agronomic and irrigation strategies to manage drought conditions in irrigated agriculture and grazed land,” he said. “We’ve proposed four specific objectives for this project.”

The first is to develop irrigation guidelines for sugarcane, citrus, corn, cotton, onions and watermelon, as well as for pastures in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, he said.

“We’ll develop guidelines on when and how much to water these crops under both full irrigation scenarios as well as limited water supply situations,” he said. “We’ll determine irrigation priorities for these crops according to profitability and water-use efficiency.”

The second objective is to develop an Internet-based computer program to adapt irrigation management according to drought conditions using a weather station network.

“We will be expanding our current network of three weather stations currently in use here in the Valley,” Enciso said. “Each station has sensors that measure solar radiation, temperature, relative humidity, wind and other factors which all correlate to water use in crops.

“Growers can access this information via the Internet and determine an estimated water need for their crops. In drought situations with reduced irrigations, they can better allocate available water based on critical crop growing stages.”

Unlike agricultural weather stations, those found at airports and other locations take measurements at heights up to 30 feet that are not useful in making agricultural predictions, Enciso said. As part of this grant, soil moisture sensors will be placed throughout the region. These will use remote sensing technology to transmit data that is passed on to growers.

Weather data is currently available at the center’s website at http://Weslaco.tamu.edu under the “Weather Information” tab.

The third and fourth objectives of the project include efforts to demonstrate and educate growers on the technology, including how to determine water-use irrigation using poly-pipe, water-application efficiencies and how to calculate net return per unit of water applied.

Since agriculture uses the vast majority of available water in South Texas, it is very important to devise strategies for times of drought, to take the “guesstimation” and estimation out of properly watering crops, Enciso said.

“This project will help us conserve water when it’s in ample supply, as well as when irrigations are restricted. This project will help us develop and combine what we know about crop water needs, current environmental conditions and water availability to minimize water use while maximizing the highest possible yields.”

Enciso said collaborators in the project include Dr. Luis Ribera, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agricultural economist in Weslaco, and Dr. Shad Nelson, an associate professor of horticulture and chair of agriculture, agribusiness and environmental sciences at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

“We’ll also be working closely with our colleagues at several water irrigation districts, with whom we’ve had longstanding relationships and collaborations on conserving water in agricultural uses,” Enciso said.

The project involves the four-county area of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and ends February 2016.



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