The Irrigation Classroom
Research institutions are developing new ways to educate growers and answer their most complex regulation, recycling and water treatment questions.
March 23, 2009
If you're a Northeastern grower or somewhere in the Midwest, you've probably encountered floods on the rare occasion. If you're a Southern grower or operating in California, drought has likely parched your plants over the last few years. If you're growing anywhere else in the United States, you might have even had an unfortunate taste of both.
Drought and floods alone are just the surface of grower water issues, though. Dig a little deeper, and regulation, recycling and general water treatment questions are bound to spout.
But where are growers to turn with their irrigation questions? Why not educators, research institutions like the recently formed Water Education Alliance for Horticulture and industry organizations like the Irrigation Association?
"There is a lot of ongoing research on water use, water requirements of plants and different ways to deliver water through irrigation systems. But water quality is also an issue as growers use recycled and reclaimed water, so information is needed on how to treat disease, algae and nutritional problems," says Paul Fisher, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the Environmental Horticulture Department at the University of Florida who also leads the Water Education Alliance. "We're partnering with leading researchers and water treatment companies to help educate growers."
The Water Education Alliance For Horticulture
The Water Education Alliance, hosted by the University of Florida, was established in 2008 as a partnership between universities and water treatment, media, fertilizer and irrigation management companies designed to help growers use water efficiently and sustainably. The alliance's goal is to provide growers with information on water treatment and conservation and to fill information gaps on technology efficacy.
"Growers would all like to use less water and reduce runoff," Fisher says, "but they are concerned about issues such as pathogen spores in recycled water. Growers come to me and ask, 'What should I use to treat my water?' I kind of feel like a politician answering them. The answer usually is: 'It depends.'"
Unfortunately, the best treatment option needs to be tailored to each grower. As Fisher says, answers tend to hinge on filtration, water source and a grower's priorities for particularly sensitive crops. His job, along with alliance collaborators who include his university and industry colleagues, is to help growers sift through a series of decisions and select a mix of approaches that might work for their particular operation.
One way the Water Education Alliance is addressing issues is through case studies on its website.
"We're going to be working on decision-making flow charts this year in terms of (1) choosing filters and (2) helping growers pick between different water treatment chemicals and technologies," Fisher says. "We see that type of interactive tool as another way of making our website more than just a filing cabinet of articles and other things."
So far, Fisher is pleased with the response the grower community has given the alliance. More than 3,000 people have visited the website, he reports, and the alliance's first interactive case study on designing a water treatment system has been well received.
"There's a lot of interest in the Water Education Alliance from people who have an existing disease issue, a problem with the quality of their well or surface pond water, or are dealing with water regulations," Fisher says. "The questions I hear from growers are very specific. They want to know how to control EC or how to address a high EC or alkalinity problem. Or pythium may be causing crop losses."
By bringing together experts from a wide range of industry, the alliance provides growers with a more balanced view of water treatment options than a sales person promoting a single technology, Fisher says, and the university helps provide a neutral source for information.
As the Water Education Alliance for Horticulture focuses on water treatment, the Nursery Greenhouse Common Interest Group within the Irrigation Association (IA) is looking at how it can act as a voice for growers on regulation and also provide education resources.
"In many areas the green industries in general, and growers in particular, have not done a great job of building relationships with regulatory bodies or documenting their water requirements and management practices. That puts you at a disadvantage in participating in policy development - if you're at the table at all," says Demie Moore, manager of corporate relations for Aquatrols and current chair of the IA Nursery Greenhouse interest group. "The Nursery Greenhouse Common Interest Group hopes to help growers address these issues."
In addition to helping the nursery and greenhouse industries be included in the IA's government affairs activities, the interest group is working with the IA Education Foundation to build an educational track that will help growers become more knowledgeable about efficient irrigation design and management. The interest group is also identifying a variety of documented best management practices with the goal of creating a BMP database that growers can turn to for necessary information.
The common interest group also hopes to partner with other groups to get solid numbers for how much water is required for crops, as well as the full value of this industry. "We need credible evidence for how much water particular crops need," Moore says. "We need evidence of our broad economic relevance and we need to show that we are being responsible users of water when we are in dialogue with regulators."
Moore points to the effect on growers in the Southeast over the last couple years as the kind of thing that can happen when growers do not have the information and relationships needed to prove their relevance and need for water.
"Access to water will become a limiting factor for the growing industry on many fronts," she says. What's needed to improve industry practices, build credibility and have a seat at the table when water policy is being formed?"
Well, information, for starters.