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Fall 2006
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Brad Laffins (left) and Michael Spiess bring state-of-the art irrigation technology and training to agriculture students and North State water users.
Photo by Thomas Del Brase

Stewards of North State Water

Irrigation facility helps farmers go with the flow—a highly computerized flow

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 graze.

“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 funding.

“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 manage water 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 that water.”

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 savings,” he explains.

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 technology.

“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 our pagers, 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 Cavagnolo.

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 says. “I’ve 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 efficiently.”