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Protecting future water resources

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Agriculture is the largest user of water, with the technology to improve water efficiencies developing rapidly.

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Water is a precious resource, and with a changing climate and growing population it is more important than ever to protect it.

 

Globally, agriculture is the largest user of water, and the technology to improve water efficiencies is developing rapidly.

 

According to Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East, the main developments are in precision application.

 

“The opportunities to deliver the right amount at the right time in the right way are becoming a lot more sophisticated,” she explains. “It’s about responding to the needs of the plant.

 

At the moment we’re treating every plant in the field the same, but they will have different needs and the industry is developing ways to meet those needs.”

 

Leading the way is NIAB EMR’s new Water Efficient Technologies Centre, which showcases the latest developments in irrigation management and moisture sensing technology.

 

Although it focuses on soft fruit production, the concept can be applied to larger field scale production, reducing water and energy usage while also increasing yields.

 

Professor Jerry Knox, an expert in agricultural water management at Cranfield University, says wireless sensor networks can now gather data from multiple sites across a field and deliver readings straight to the farmer’s computer or smartphone, rather than having to take individual soil moisture readings.

 

There is even an aerial soil moisture sensor in development which, when mounted on a drone, can provide a detailed map of the water status of a whole field in minutes, regardless of crop cover.

 

SoilSense co-founder Maciej Klemm says: “This is a step-change in moisture sensing and offers the potential for smart irrigation controlled by actual water need.”

 

Developers are now starting to link in-situ soil moisture measurement with trickle irrigation systems, says Prof Knox.

 

“When the soil is drying it automatically triggers the irrigation rather than the farmer having to check the soil sensor and then manually start irrigation.”

Closed loop systems

Going one step further are closed loop systems, where the scheduling system in the field talks to the irrigation system using computer models and relates this to local climate conditions, to make more informed decisions about where and when to irrigate.

 

When it comes to the water resources aspects of irrigation, variable speed pumps can now significantly reduce energy consumption, especially in high pressure distribution systems, says Prof Knox.

 

Application methods have also improved with larger and lighter boom systems, designed to irrigate larger areas while only requiring one person to pack them up and move them.

 

Other ways to improve water management include rainwater harvesting and recycling technologies, as well as using heat exchangers to produce cold water for processing during the day and hot water for washing down at night, for example.

 

According to Dr Clarke, hydroponic systems are growing in popularity, offering the potential to grow high value crops in a small area, whether that is a city warehouse or a shed on-farm.

 

“One company is developing a pop-up system which you can put in a shipping container.” With the ability to control lighting, water and nutrition, there is great potential both in the UK and disaster recovery areas. And the costs do not have to be astronomic, either.

 

“People are targeting new technology at accessibility – there’s a lot of focus on price and ease of installation.”

 

As well as new products, there are also developments in water resources management across the industry, says Prof Knox.

 

“Water Resources East is looking at opportunities for shared investment and collaboration in major water infrastructure.”

 

The Green Alliance is considering similar ways in which farmers can collaborate to deliver flood management or water treatment services. This could be through improved organic matter in the soil, reed beds, peatland restoration or storage ponds, for example.

 

Prof Knox adds: “It’s about bringing the whole industry – from farmers to water companies – together to develop integrated and resilient solutions, such as wastewater re-use, desalination, and shared storage reservoirs. There could be some really exciting opportunities.”


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