Brad Laffins (left) and Michael Spiess bring state-of-the art irrigation
technology and training to agriculture students and North State
Stewards of North State Water
Irrigation facility helps farmers go with the flow—a highly
By Christine Vovakes
Driving down narrow farm roads on a hot July afternoon, Brad
Laffins points out acres of orchards and row crops, fields of bright
yellow sunflowers, and green pastureland where cattle and sheep
“Farmers are moving away from flood-type irrigation and going
to sprinkler or drip systems,” he says during a tour of California
State University, Chico’s Paul L. Byrne Memorial Agricultural
Teaching and Research Center—known as the University Farm—located
about six miles south of the main campus.
Sounding like a lifelong farmer, he describes water’s vital
importance not only for the University’s 800-acre croplands,
but also for the myriad agricultural operations and community water
systems throughout California that depend on a serpentine system
of interconnected dams, rivers, and canals to deliver the aquatic
lifeblood essential for survival.
But Laffins isn’t a farmer. He’s a computer whiz (BS,
Computer Information Systems, ’01) and is part of CSU, Chico’s
commitment to bring efficient irrigation technology and expertise
to agriculture students and North State water users.
To show how the University Farm has implemented the new technology,
he leads the way to the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition
System—SCADA—housed in a brightly lit room humming
with computers. Among their many applications, the computers connect
to pumping stations in the fields and are programmed to control
both the amount and flow of water released for irrigation.
SCADA is a key component of the state-of-the art irrigation training
facility that Laffins manages for CSU, Chico. It was completed
at the University Farm in 2003, and includes a pump and meter test
facility and a model canal system.
While Charles Crabb was dean of the College of Agriculture (he
retired in August), CSU, Chico collaborated with the U.S. Bureau
of Reclamation; the Irrigation Training and Research Center at
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; and the
Center for Irrigation Technology at CSU, Fresno to build the $450,000
SCADA facility. Federal, state, and private entities provided the
“It’s a multiuse facility that will serve our students’ needs
as well as serve the farming needs of Northern California agriculture
and all the partners,” says Crabb.
“Part of our interest was to get water users in Northern
California to understand and embrace tools already available to
resources efficiently,” he says. “Because we see so
much water flow through the northern part of the state, the urgency
of water conservation often doesn’t seem as important as
it is. We have to demonstrate that we’re good stewards of
The training facility will help water managers and irrigation districts
learn better ways to monitor water amounts, and to disperse it
with maximum efficiency. CSU, Chico students will get hands-on
experience that Crabb hopes will encourage them to “go out
and set up similar irrigation systems in their agricultural pursuits.”
Dennis Perkins (BS, Agriculture, ’77), a Bureau of Reclamation
water conservation specialist for the Northern California area
office, says the irrigation training facility is a broad-spectrum
approach that shows how SCADA automation is used for water, pump,
and canal management. He hails the cooperation between the BOR
and the three universities to build the Chico facility, saying
it was too difficult and expensive to send Northern California
personnel to Cal Poly for training.
Northern California has 35 water districts, plus about 100 additional
water contractors. Perkins says that the main goal is “modernization
of the districts so we can make the delivery programs more efficient.”
SCADA technology can work with any kind of canal, whether it’s
a rudimentary field ditch trenched by hand or miles of concrete-clad
canals. “In the past, water management has been more of an
art than a science,” notes Perkins. “We’ve brought
the science up to Northern California to make it available for
everyone in the area.”
Referring to weir boards used to open and shut off water supply
to crops as “100-year-old technology,” Perkins says
that workers “will spend the whole day running up and down
the ditch trying to regulate the flow.” SCADA automation
allows operators to adjust the flow so water gets delivered evenly.
Perkins thinks it is important for agriculture production and water
district personnel to come to the Chico facility and see the new
technology demonstrated. “Education always comes before equipment,” he
says. “People can’t tell how it will work until they
see it working and understand how it can benefit them.”
Michael Spiess (BS, Agriculture, ’79), an associate professor
in the College of Agriculture, teaches students the relationship
between water flow and efficiency, and he uses the training facility
as “a big laboratory apparatus.”
Spiess says that the facility “is one small location that
gives us demonstrations of many technologies. You could replicate
them in the field, but you’d have to travel miles to see
the various methods.”
One of the first tasks a water district must do is take an accurate
measurement of the water at the point of diversion. For example,
he says, when water is diverted from the Sacramento River into
a canal, it goes through a giant meter that is much like a home
meter. But some water measurement technologies are inaccurate.
“Basically, we want to improve the measurement of the water
and control of the flow in the hope that those will lead to water
SCADA technology has been used commercially for years. In a factory
setting, multiple processes are centrally controlled by a computer.
That technology has been adapted for water uses, explains Spiess.
For instance, a farm manager can set the controls so that irrigation
begins at a certain time.
“To every grower who has ever gotten up at 4 am to turn the
water on, this has got to sound pretty good,” says Spiess.
It’s better than pretty good, according to Les Heringer Jr.
of M&T Ranch in Butte County, where a SCADA system was installed
10 years ago.
“We love it,” he says. “First thing in the morning,
we walk into the office and can see what has happened overnight,
and we set the controls before we leave.”
Emil Cavagnolo, the Orland-Artois water district supervisor, agrees.
The district serves about 110 miles of pipeline with five diversion
points and was the first in Northern California to install SCADA
“We can operate from remote desktops at home,” he says,
adding that SCADA has an alarm function. “For instance, if
the level gets too low or the flow is too high, an alarm goes to
and a code tells us exactly what the problem is.”
The district has 300 metered deliveries to agriculture properties
and only two people handling the operation. “We always had
just the two of us, but we were running from place to place, burning
up our pickups. Some of our runs are 50 miles one way,” says
Now if a “blowout” occurs, the computer alerts them,
and they turn the pump off. “We still go out,” he says. “But
we know exactly where the problem is and where to go.”
Steve Brown (BS, Agricultural Business, ’75), with the Orland
Unit Water Users Association, says they’re just embarking
on the installation of a SCADA system to monitor flows in their
canals. “We’re in a learning process. The next step
will be to install automatic gates.”
The irrigation training facility at CSU, Chico teaches him and
his workers to accurately measure water and determine the importance
of those measurements.
“We’re thrilled to have the facility there,” he
been to the classes about SCADA and have taken my ditch tenders.
I got very good remarks from my guys when we got back.”
Six ditch tenders schedule water deliveries to about 850 farm properties
in Glenn County. “They have to track the delivery and accurately
measure it so that we bill correctly,” says Brown.
He’s eager to fully implement SCADA technology. “Water
is an expensive commodity and a precious commodity,” he says. “We
can save a lot of water and help our farmers by delivering it more