A Convincing Argument for Smarter Irrigation

E-mail Melanie Martella

So, I'm happy to report that it's less stinking hot today than it's been all week, (all hail, Willis Haviland Carrier for the miracle of modern air conditioning). Along with the hot weather, we've also had less rain here than usual, so southern New Hampshire rates as Abnormally Dry on the U.S Drought Monitor. In this respect, we're doing better than an awful lot of the rest of the continental U.S.

Little did I know, when I wrote "Sensing Droughts" back in February that I'd be referring to the Drought Monitor again so soon. The June 2012 NOAA National Climatic Data Center's Drought analysis makes for grim reading, since it calculates that about 55% of the contiguous U.S. can be categorized as experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions (with 33% of the U.S. experiencing severe to extreme drought). According to historical records, the last time things were this bad was back in 1956 when about 58% of the contiguous U.S. was experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions and so it's no wonder that there are worries of another Dust Bowl.

When you consider that, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service, agriculture accounts for ~80% of the U.S. water consumption, it should come as no surprise that research into smarter irrigation has been ongoing, such as the project described in David Biello's Scientific American article, "Can Soil Sensors Save Georgia Waterways from Drought?" or the SCRI-MINDS Smart Farms project that focuses on using distributed sensing to monitor and control irrigation and nutrients.

There's a reason that sensors are increasingly cropping up (ha!) in agricultural applications; they're vital tools that help farmers to do a very demanding and complex job. Whether they're increasing vehicle stability and improving navigation for agricultural vehicles, monitoring crop health and ripeness, monitoring and managing irrigation, or allowing a farmer to locate and identify their livestock, sensors provide much-needed intelligence, especially when coupled with embedded electronics and a variety of communication options. Vineyards may have been some of the earliest adopters of wireless sensor networks for agricultural uses, but they won't be the last.

When water is plentiful and cheap, it's easy to put off irrigation upgrades because the need for improvement isn't as urgent. However, if we continue to experience such widespread drought conditions, our need for better irrigation options is only going to grow.