New technology offer lots of opportunities to conserve water, and it gets lots of coverage in the news.  Last week on NPR I heard that San Francisco recently passed an ordinance requiring new large apartment buildings to install plumbing that will re-route drain water from showers, sinks and washing machines into toilets.  While it seems like a simple concept — “Why haven’t we done this before?” — putting it into practice will be a complex engineering problem, and a source of employment for plumbers for decades to come.
On the farm, though, some of the most fundamental and dramatic water conservation techniques are old school.  Meaning that they lack the excitement of the newest electronic device or other new technology.
In the last week, farmers in Northern California saved millions of gallons of water simply by planning around the weather.
Farmers do this all the time, for many reasons.  Weather is more important for agriculture than the calendar.  If you plan to cut hay on a Monday, for example, and it rains on Tuesday, you have failed at your job.  Moisture causes hay to rot.  If Weather says it’s going to rain on Tuesday, you don’t cut your hay on Monday.  Period.
Similarly, if the Weather Channel tells you that it’s going to rain in California on a Monday night, in the middle of a drought, you are going to work Sunday to plant as much as you possibly can before the rain.  Plants and seeds planted before a rain don’t need to be irrigated until the soil dries out again.  And seeds planted into moist soil after a rain will also sprout without irrigation and grow for weeks without additional water.
Which is why farmers across the state worked back to back Sundays before and after last week’s storm, taking advantage of the precious resource that fell from the sky last Monday and Tuesday to cram several weeks of planting into a ten day period.
The media tells us that irrigation water is “cheap” or “subsidized” for farmers, but it still costs money:  tens of thousands of dollars a year for us at Terra Firma.  Water from the sky is FREE!  And the only way to waste it is to not take full advantage of every drop.
Last week’s rain also provided a week or more worth of water for pasture, orchards, vineyards, lawns and gardens across Northern California.  Pumps on farms across the state were silent for a week.  Hopefully homeowners, municipalities and golf courses turned off their irrigation timers as well.
I’ve been looking for the headlines this week reading “Farmers Save Millions of Gallons of Water with April Storm”.  I haven’t found any yet.  Maybe if there was an Iphone app…