Posts Tagged: Water
Not more than three months on the job and Konrad Mathesius is hard at work bringing farmers together to discuss the unique challenges that Sacramento Valley farmers face. As the new UCCE agronomy advisor for Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, his role is designed specifically to help growers with their crop issues – pests, disease and fertility – but with a strong background in soil science, Mathesius hopes to shed light on the diversity of soils in the region and the unique management considerations that each necessitates.
In hopes of highlighting this diversity of soils and encouraging growers to dig a little deeper to better inform their management practices, Konrad enlisted the help of UCCE soil resource specialist Toby O'Geen to lead a field tour of three major soils in the southern Sacramento Valley. The event included three pit stops on two Yolo County farms and brought out a diversity of participants from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service agents, to resource conservationists, to farmers and crop advisors.
Kicking things off at Rominger Brother's Ranch -- a diversified family farm in Winters that grows everything from wine grapes to processing tomatoes to rice, wheat, corn, onions, alfalfa and hay -- O'Geen took the audience on a journey back in time, describing the rich natural history of the former floodplain that has given rise to the rich, productive soils that support California agriculture today. After introducing himself as a pedologist, or a scientist who studies the nature and properties of soil, he went on to introduce the five soil forming factors and their role in molding initial (1) parent material (i.e. rocks), under the influence of (2) climate, (3) topography and (4) organisms and over a given period of (5) time into soils.
Proving that soil scientists take the term “pit stop” literally, Mathesius shifted the conversation to a 1.5-meter deep hole in the ground, dug out the day before with a back hoe. Step by step, he walked participants through the process of analyzing a soil pit – cleaning the face, identifying horizons or individual layers and using the senses to assess soil properties and determine function. As he struck the face of the pit with a rock hammer, an audible difference was detected between the surface layers and the subsurface.
Working backwards from the sound, he explained that the subsurface was significantly harder, which he attributed to a finer texture and ultimately identified as a clay pan, a restrictive layer that prevents roots from penetrating deeply and has the capacity to waterlog soils, due to poor drainage. O'Geen offered some tangible advice as to how to manage these soils, quipping that a deep rip would be no better than cutting butter with a knife (eventually it all just settles back into place) while likening a slip plow to a giant shank that just inverts the soil, mixing things to about a depth of 6 feet and permanently eliminating the problem.
From there, Mathesius segued into a hands-on exercise to determine the soil texture, or percent distribution of various size particles, allowing participants to work on their pottery skills making balls and ribbons with the clay-rich soils. Discussing the many functions that soil texture controls, led the conversation down a rabbit-hole around water holding capacity and how to calculate the range of plant available water for your soil.
With the demos out of the way, they voyaged to the next pre-dug pit, bringing participants face to face with the harsh reality of soil heterogeneity. Just 300 feet away and it was as if we had ventured into another environment altogether, yet these soils formed in the same place, under the same climate and similar vegetation, but in a completely different time with slightly different starting material.
By changing just a couple of the ingredients in the special sauce of soil formation the results are completely different featuring a clay dominant surface soil and entirely different water management challenges. And these aren't just any clays, but a special class that swell and shrink as they wet and dry, oftentimes shearing roots under the pressure and creating a hospitable environment for disease to thrive. O'Geen suggested trying to keep them in the sweet spot where they are consistently moist, but not wet, and never allowed to dry out. Unfortunately, there is no precise measurement to that formula, “you just have to be almost like an artist. It's a lot of feel to it and the numbers sometimes just don't work out. It just comes with years of experience. Its one of those native intelligence things that you just have to feel your way through,” he noted.
Caravanning 20 miles back towards Davis, the tour arrived at the third and final pit, located at Triad Farms, a tomato operation in Dixon. Well-drained, young and fertile, Yolo loam soils are the poster children of agriculture, owing in large part to regular deposits of silts from past flood events. With not many management challenges to speak of, conversation immediately shifted towards an undocumented challenge that farmers on the eastern side of the Sacramento Valley are all too familiar with – the unavailability of potassium, even under intensive fertilization regimes. While the jury is still out on the cause and while it contradicts what soil scientists expect to find in those regions, possible explanations were tossed around and O'Geen used the opportunity to stress the importance of speaking up about things growers or advisors see going on in their area. Turns out the USDA-NRCS is working on updating its inventory of soil surveys, documenting soils across the nation and is currently seeking input on what's working for growers and where things are differing on the ground.
Ultimately, in closing, Mathesius called for more engagement between the university, extension and growers. O'Geen reminded everyone that “You can really learn a lot by digging a hole, looking at stuff, and developing theories. Sometimes you're wrong, but they're kind of fun to talk about."
University of California students are taking a long journey through California to trace the state's complicated and critical water supply. The recent graduates and upper-division co-eds from UC Merced, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley and UC Davis are part of the UC Water Academy, a course that combines online training with a two-week field trip for first-hand knowledge about California water.
The tour began June 18 at Lake Shasta, the state's largest reservoir, and followed the water's course to the Sacramento Valley, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and south along the Delta-Mendota Canal. Since a key water destination is agriculture, the UC Water Academy toured the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension June 23, where research is underway to determine how the state's water supply can be most efficiently transformed into a food supply for Americans.
“You're visiting a place ideal for growing high-quality fruits and vegetables, because of the Mediterranean climate and low insect and disease pressure,” said Jeff Dahlberg, director of the UC KREC.
UC Cooperative Extension water management specialist Khaled Bali joined the students next to his alfalfa research plot, where different irrigation regimens are compared to determine the maximum yield that can be harvested with the minimum amount of water.
“It used to be that the No. 1 objective was to maximize yield,” Bali said. “But with the limited supplies and the cost of water, now the No. 1 objective is to get the maximum economic return. Growers might be better off selling some of their water to other jurisdictions.”
A water tour wouldn't be complete without an introduction to drought research. A recently planted sorghum trial provided the backdrop.
“California is a great place to study drought tolerance,” Dahlberg said, “because you can induce a drought by withholding irrigation.”
The sizable field contains 1,800 plots with 600 sorghum cultivars under three irrigation schemes: one irrigated as usual, one in which water is cut off before the plants flower, and the final one where water is cut off after the plants flower.
“Every week, a drone flies over to collect data on the leaf area, plant height and biomass,” Dalberg said. “Hopefully we will get associations with gene expression and this phenotype data."
Dahlberg and his collaborating researchers believe identifying the genes responsible for drought tolerance in sorghum will help scientists find drought-tolerant genes in other cereal crops – such as wheat, corn, rice and millet. “This will go a long way to feeding the people of the world,” he said.
There is still much to learn about sorghum drought tolerance – is it conferred by the plant's waxy leaves, the way stomata are controlled, accumulation of sugar in the leaves, or a mechanism in the roots?
“These are all questions you will have to answer to feed the world,” Dahlberg said. “That's why I would encourage you to continue studying water. There's a lot for you to get into.”
A third-year earth science student at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the academy, Denise Payan, said the sense of responsibility for the future is not daunting, but encouraging.
“It makes me feel like I can make a difference,” she said. The tour through California is shaping her plans for the future, which may include a career at the intersection of geology and biology.
“This has opened my eyes to a lot of issues,” she said.
The next stop for the UC Water Academy is the vast Tulare Lake basin to learn about groundwater recharge before heading east to the Owens Valley and the shores of Mono Lake. From there the academy turns to the Sierra Nevada to visit San Francisco's water supply, which is collected by Hetch Hetchy Dam. The field trip ends with a two-day rafting trip on the American River.
The UC Water Academy is offered through UC Water and led by UC Merced professor Joshua Viers and UC Cooperative Extension water management specialist Ted Grantham. In addition to the two-week tour, students participated in weekly online meetings and complete a project on communicating California water issues to public stakeholders. Students receive 1 unit of academic credit.
The UC California Institute for Water Resources (CIWR) has announced the recipients of six grants to address the most critical water issues in the state. For this program, the Institute leverages funds it receives from the Water Resources Research Act of 1964 through the Department of Interior.
CIWR, which is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, facilitates collaborative research and outreach on water issues across California's academic institutions and with international, federal, state, regional, nonprofit, and campus communities.
Small grants to support initial work will be dispersed to the following projects (click the headline for more information):
Suitability of alfalfa for winter groundwater recharge
Helen Dahlke, professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources, UC Davis
One proposed solution for recharging overdrawn aquifers is flooding farmland during the rainy season. Optimizing agricultural groundwater banking for specific crops can be challenging. The goal of this project is to better understand how alfalfa, which is grown year-round, responds to winter flooding.
Fish habitat response to streamflow augmentation
Ted Grantham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management, UC Berkeley
Declining water levels can degrade or eliminate fish habitat during California's summer season. Storing water off-channel during the rainy season can improve flow during the summer. The study is designed to gain a better understanding of the relationship between stream flow and habitat.
Remote sensing of turfgrass response to irrigation
Amir Haghverdi, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, UC Riverside
Turfgrass is common in urban landscapes and provides valuable recreation areas and ecosystem services. This project will help determine the best irrigation strategies for common turfgrass species.
Habitat restoration impacts on water management
Eric Palkovacs, professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, UC Santa Cruz
The natural conditions of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been changed by habitat alteration and non-native predacious fish introduction. This project will examine the interplay between altered habitat and predatory fish, and how they impact native salmon populations.
Evaluating water conservation policy in California
Leah Stokes, professor in the Department of Political Science, UC Santa Barbara
During the recent drought, California required that on-average urban water districts conserve 25 percent of their water. While some districts were successful, others failed to meet their target. This project will examine how variation in policy – pricing, messaging and penalties – and drought severity affected water conservation.
Groundwater dynamics after California drought
Amelia Vankeuren, professor in the Department of Geology, Sacramento State University
As part of California's groundwater management act, some basins were designated as high management priorities. This project will characterize groundwater using age, location and temperature. This information will be valuable for stakeholders creating a groundwater sustainability plan.
While some people were spending spring break at the beach or catching up on their Netflix queue, students from the EcoGeoMorphology class at UC Davis were rafting down the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The class split in two groups for the 225-mile river journey. On March 10, the group embarked from Lee's Ferry, rafting 90 miles before hiking to the rim on March 19 along Bright Angel Trail. They passed the second group on their way down the same day. They traveled the remaining 135 miles to the next road access at Diamond Creek.
The class is conducted during winter quarter by the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Center for Watershed Sciences, in partnership with Campus Recreation's Outdoor Adventures. While its first trip to the Grand Canyon was in 2003, students have taken this optional trip for each of the past five years.
‘There's nothing quite like this'
The trip is the physical and visible representation of what the class is all about: Geologists, hydrologists and ecologists learning to communicate with each other and the public. It's a skill necessary in real-world careers, where working on environmental problems requires a variety of expertise that isn't always taught in siloed classrooms.
“I'm not a geologist myself, but you only have to look left to right at any moment, and there's nothing quite like this,” said Young while floating down the river, taking in the cliffs rising around him.
The classrooms are pretty spectacular: red walled caverns, ancient Puebloan ruins, rock formations and fossils, the river itself. It's the students' textbooks brought vividly and tangibly to life.
Along the way, Young described the life cycle of Century plants; explored the plants sprouting around Vasey's Paradise, a natural spring; and rubbed scale insects off prickly pear plants to expose the crimson dye they produce. At each step, he casually prodded the students to consider what it means to have a river running through a desert.
The group was unplugged, off-grid, and literally immersed in the river, rocks and landscape.
Geologists, ecologists, and hydrologists helped teach each other about rocks, plants, fish and flow rates—usually informally as they scrambled up a trail or gazed up at the vertical cliffs slowly floating past.
They slept each night under a sky bright with forgotten stars, to the sounds of softly strumming guitar and the nearby rushing river.
Over the course of eight days on the river, they traveled through about a billion years of geologic time.
Young had been on the trip once before, two years ago. He said it was just as impressive the second go-around.
“It's actually more spectacular on the second pass, which surprised me,” he said. “Just the magnitude and the grandeur of it, all that stuff. It's just more.”
A recent study led by UC Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic used high resolution satellite imagery to conduct a systematic survey of cannabis production and to explore its potential ecological consequences.
Published this spring in Environmental Research Letters, the study focused on the “emerald-triangle” in northern California's Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties, which many believe is the top cannabis-producing region in the United States.
The UC Berkeley-based Butsic and his co-author Jacob Brenner used Google Earth imagery to locate and map grow sites (both greenhouses and outdoor plots) in 60 watersheds. Most cannabis grow sites are very small, and have gone undetected when researchers used automated remote sensing techniques, which are commonly used to detect larger changes such as deforestation.
“We chose to use fine-grained imagery available in Google Earth and to systematically digitize grows by hand, identifying individual plants. Most plants stand out as neat, clear, little circles,” said Brenner, who is on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Studies and Science at Ithaca College. “The method was laborious — it took over 700 hours — but it proved to be highly accurate.”
Butsic and Brenner paired their image analysis with data on the spatial characteristics of the sites (slope, distance to rivers, distance to roads) and information on steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, both of which are listed as threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. These and other species are vulnerable to the low water flows, soil erosion, and chemical contamination that can result from nearby agriculture.
Results of the study show 4,428 grow sites, most of which were located on steep slopes far from developed roads. Because these sites will potentially use significant amounts of water and are near the habitat for threatened species, Butsic and Brenner conclude that there is a high risk of negative ecological consequences.
“The overall footprint of the grows is actually quite small [~2 square kiliometers], and the water use is only equivalent to about 100 acres of almonds,” says Butsic, who is in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at Berkeley. According to Butsic, California currently has more than one million irrigated acres of almonds.
He stresses that the issue lies in the placement of the sites: “Close to streams, far from roads, and on steep slopes — cannabis may be a case of the right plant being in the wrong place.”
Last year, California legislature passed laws designed to regulate medical marijuana production, and state voters will weigh in on whether to legalize recreational marijuana this coming fall. Given these changes as well as the profitability of cannabis production, Butsic expects that marijuana cultivation will expand into other sites with suitable growing conditions throughout the region. He and Brenner assert that ecological monitoring of these hotspots should be a top priority.
Bills recently signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown have made some advances in this direction — requiring municipalities to develop land use ordinances for cannabis production, forcing growers to obtain permits for water diversions, and requiring a system to track cannabis from when it is first planted until it reaches consumers.
But the researchers say that regulation will likely be a constant challenge because it will rely on monitoring procedures that are just now emerging, as well as voluntary registration from producers and budget allocation from the state for oversight and enforcement.
“Some of the same fundamental challenges that face researchers face regulators as well, primarily that cannabis agriculture remains a semi-clandestine activity,” says Brenner. “It has a legacy of lurking in the shadows. We just don't know — and can't know — where every grow exists or whether every grower is complying with new regulations.”