Improved data helps farmers manage irrigation needs

Nevada is starting to get a more accurate picture of its water usage through an expanding network of weather stations located in irrigated areas of the state.

The goal is to collect more precise climate data that can be used to make better decisions about water, from crop irrigation schedules to transfers of water rights for municipal or other use to settling disputes about the precious resource.

Nevada Integrated Climate and Evapotranspiration Network - NICE Net - was developed through a collaboration between the Desert Research Institute, the State of Nevada Division of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It consists of 18 weather stations that collect data and transmit it via satellite. The stations are located in various valleys, from Paradise Valley in Humboldt County to Moapa Valley just northwest of Las Vegas. Most are in central and Northern Nevada, including Carson, Mason and Smith valleys. NICE Net, which costs $1,500 per station annually to operate and maintain, is funded by a Bureau of Reclamation grant and is currently funded for another year and DRI is working to with federal, state and local agencies to obtain continuing funding and expand the network.

NICE Net is much like similar networks long used in the west, including the California Irrigation Management Information System, a network of more than 200 weather stations throughout that state's vast farm lands, and AgriMet, a Bureau of Reclamation network spanning Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon, both launched 30 years ago.

The data collected over the years by CIMIS, for example, has helped California save money and water as demand from population growth grows.

"Our network is very new so we haven't been able to go to that level yet, but that's our goal," says Justin Huntington, NICE Net project coordinator and assistant research professor, Division of Hydrologic Sciences at DRI in Reno.

Collecting such data may be even more important in Nevada because most of the state is bone dry, and information gathered in arid areas can differ by as much as 30 percent from the same type of data accurately measured in wetter, agricultural spots.

"Irrigated areas create microclimates," says Huntington. "We really need to be measuring weather variables to say something about water use in those environments."

That includes consumptive use, or the amount of water that is sent into the atmosphere and not returned. Some of the water used in farming is returned to the water supply through deep percolation and other means.

Figuring that out is difficult, says Huntington, but key to determining, among other things, how much water can be transferred to municipal uses when agricultural water rights are purchased by developers.

To figure it out, CIMIS, AgriMet and NICE Net measure all kinds of climate data points, including solar radiation, air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, precipitation, barometric pressure, soil temperature and soil moisture. Real time data is available by going to the NICE Net web site - - and clicking on a specific station.

NICE Net data can be used to help conserve water for all kinds of uses. The Carson Water Subconservancy District, for example, has been using it in a pilot program helping nine parks in Carson City and Lyon, Douglas and Churchill counties water more efficiently.

"We use NICE data to get base reference evapotranspiration or to see how much water goes off in air," says Debbie Neddenriep, water resource specialist with the district.

Evapotranspiration is the loss of water to the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration, the water vapor lost through leaves, stems and other plant parts.

"By being able to look up the reference evapotranspiration number, we could set up sprinkler system with a smart controller," says Neddenriep, that waters when the turf needs it.

And now Neddenriep is using the parks as an example to help educate residents on how to conserve water, too.

Large farms in Nevada have sophisticated data collecting operations, including weather stations like those installed in the NICE Net. Winnemucca Farms, for example, has three weather stations, one located in the middle of the farm and two on the periphery, and also uses data from the NICE Net station in Paradise Valley, according to Leo Boeglin, farm agronomist with the farm.

"We took a tour of their place and it's a very impressive operation," says Julie Wolf of Wolf Ranch in Fallon and president of the Churchill County Farm Bureau of the Nevada Farm Bureau. "That's an affordable option when you get as big as they are."

But there are few operations as large as Winnemucca Farms, and NICE Net data could be a big help to most of Nevada's smaller farms, says Wolf.


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