DEP and Suwanee River Water Management District Conduct Mobile Irrigation Lab Demonstration at Allison Farms

mil-1-edit_cropThe Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Suwannee River Water Management District joined representatives of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at Allison Farms in Lake City on March 31, 2014 for a demonstration of the Suwannee River Resource Conservation & Development Council’s Mobile Irrigation Lab.

The Mobile Irrigation Lab program is offered as a volunteer service to the agricultural community to help optimize irrigation practices. Program staff collect irrigation system and specific field data, and develop recommendations on when and how to irrigate based on system efficiency, crop requirements and soil characteristics.

Today’s demonstration featured both a fertigation system, which applies fertilizer through irrigation water, and an optimized center-pivot irrigation system. These practices are used in tandem to apply fertilizers, soil amendments or other water-soluble products more efficiently. Combined, these practices can decrease the costs associated with fertilizer use for producers and increase water conservation. If all the recommendations for Allison Farms are implemented, overall system irrigation efficiency can improve by an estimated 17 percent and save approximately 60,000 gallons per day.

Since the inception of the project, the Department and water management district have installed 46 fertigation systems and 53 center pivot retrofits. The entire program has saved an estimated 736 million gallons of water per year, and has prevented 340 tons of excess nutrients from entering Florida water bodies.

“DEP applauds the efforts of agricultural operators who have stepped up to reduce nutrient impacts of their operations,” said Department Deputy Secretary for Water Policy and Ecosystem Restoration Drew Bartlett. “We are committed to working with agriculture, local governments and other stakeholders to implement both long- and short-term strategies to improve water quality in the Santa Fe River basin.”

Water management district staff can assist producers with installing additional technology, including on-site, real-time weather monitors that can be used to shut off irrigation systems before incoming rainstorms, saving thousands of gallons of water. Similar efforts exist to measure soil saturation so that irrigation frequency may be adjusted or automatically shut off when sufficient moisture content is reached. These advanced technologies allow producers to optimize their water and fertilizer use remotely through the use of monitors that can communicate real-time data to a smartphone or laptop.

Implementation of practices such as these will be critical to achieving the restoration goals established for the Sante Fe River. The Department adopted a 35 percent nutrient reduction target for the Sante Fe River and associated springs to reduce algae and improve the system’s health.

“The DEP and District grant program in the Santa Fe River Basin has resulted in saving water and reducing nutrient loadings to receiving waterbodies,” said Suwannee River Water Management District Executive Director Ann Shortelle. “This program also benefited farmers by decreasing their fertilizer and fuel use and by potentially increasing crop yields. Most importantly, applying this technology will speed up achievement of the Santa Fe restoration and recovery goals.”

The Suwannee River Partnership, which includes the Department, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Suwannee River Water Management District, among others, has been working with agriculture since 1999 to enhance water quality and water conservation in the Suwannee River Basin through the implementation of Best Management Practices. Enrollment in the Department of Agriculture’s BMPs programs includes almost 60 percent of the agricultural land in the basin, including about 75 percent of row/field crops and hayfields.About 90 percent of the dairies and 100 percent of poultry operations are implementing BMPs contained in conservation plans developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service.Based on results from BMP demonstration projects in the basin, use of these BMP tools is estimated to reduce fertilizer applications by 50 pounds an acre.

Through the Partnership, farmers have received more than 700 Mobile Irrigation Lab evaluations.Following recommendations, producers retrofitted more than 150 center pivot irrigation systems during 2012 and 2013 with new nozzles, regulators, gaskets and irrigation controllers.Estimated water savings associated with the retrofits are more than 18 million gallons per pivot each year.

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