Managing water use in California vineyards has been a top priority
for vintners during recent years of drought conditions.
By Jeff Siegel
Talk to California growers, vineyard managers and viticulturists, and water almost always tops the list of their concerns. And it’s not water like it used to be, when the biggest debate was, “How much is enough?” These days, it’s about everything related to water in a changing climate, says Mark Greenspan, Ph.D., president and viticulturist for Advanced Viticulture and Advanced Viticulture Consulting, with offices on the state’s north and central coasts.
According to Greenspan, who will be one of the panelists at WIN’s upcoming Growing Forward: Vineyard & Grower Virtual Conference, that means conversation often centers around the rising cost of water, coupled with what seems to be less water available for irrigation, as well as the effects of droughts and flooding. Throw in improvements in irrigation technology and, perhaps most important, the cost of managing all of those factors, and it’s a lot to take in.
“There are so many things associated with climate change, and there is such variability in the weather,” says Greenspan. “If you’re looking at it from the North Coast and Central Coast perspectives, it’s almost like the weather has flip-flopped, with one having drought and the other having rain. That’s been almost unprecedented, what with drought and all the extremes. It changes what growers should do — and not do — in the vineyard.”
Which is where technology comes in.
Doing more with less
According to Bennett Fitzgibbon, vice president of marketing for irrigation tech company Lumo, improvements in water and irrigation tech have made it possible to do more with less – and at an increasingly affordable price.
“The big gap has always been in the data provided to growers,” says Fitzgibbon. “That’s been the main problem with all of the products on the market over the last several years. So the goal has been to close that gap.” Progress is being made and, today, that gap is shrinking in a variety of ways.
Improved technology benefits
Real-time data, once the Holy Grail of any farming tech, is now commonplace. What has improved is the ability of the user to check the data on a phone or computer, using an ordinary wireless connection. That, say the experts, is a vast improvement over previous incarnations of monitoring technology. In addition, it’s also possible for tech companies to continuously monitor data and to send updates to the user.
Farmers are also no longer limited to just drip irrigation. Want to regulate water flow through the vineyards? It’s possible. Want to regulate water flow through specific vineyard blocks? It’s possible. Want to find out if the flow rate is what it’s supposed to be and hasn’t been corrupted by a bad sensor? It’s possible. Says Fitzgibbon, “You don’t have to find out at the end of the week that you were putting too much or too little water in the vineyard.”
Soil sensors are also improving. It’s becoming increasingly possible to better measure soil moisture, especially deeper down, making better decisions possible based on that data. For example, says Greenspan, sensor technology can determine if there’s significant moisture at three feet, which would mean there’s less need to water even if the surface is dry. Instead, he says, growers can wait, let the vines use the moisture deeper down, and reassess water needs later.
California’s water woes go hand-in-hand with its labor shortages. Improved irrigation tech can not only cut water costs, but labor needs as well. Better monitoring will not only detect flow variabilities, but also leaks throughout the irrigation system. That means there’s no need to send someone out in a tractor to regularly check for leaks; an employee can be dispatched to check when the equipment detects a failure. What’s more, water can be turned off remotely to stop the leak.
“Has the technology gotten to the point where it’s more effective, easier to use and more affordable? Absolutely,” says Greenspan. “Inflation has kept some costs up but, overall, like with cellular [phone] costs, prices are going down. It’s becoming increasingly affordable for medium and smaller growers to afford the technology. It’s not just for [large operations] anymore.”
Which is good news all around.
Editor’s Note: To hear more from Greenspan, check out WIN’s Growing Forward: Vineyard & Grower Virtual Conference on July 19, 2023. For more information, go to wineindustryadvisor.com/growingforwardvineyardconference.