- Author: Ben Faber
A recent grower survey in Santa Barbara County asked a whole bunch of questions. One of which was had they had an evaluation of irrigation distribution uniformity. This is a free service that can significantly improve on-farm water use and most importantly improve plant health. Avocados that don't get the right amount of water at the right time are extremely susceptible to root rot. Proper irrigation is the first line of defense against root rot, good farming that results in good economic returns to the grower.
So, with a free DU available to growers, how many do you think took advantage of the service? Barely 50%!!!!!!!! This just does not make sense. In a land of little water and frequent examples of what can happen with no water ………………..and high priced water, what is going on?
The local Resource Conservation District has done many system evaluations, and most results find that improvements can be made in distribution uniformity. This is true in relatively new irrigation installations. It does not take long for problems to occur in even well designed and installed systems.
During the summer of 2007, the Casitas Municipal Water District (CMWD) contracted with the Irrigation Training and Research Center (ITRC) of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to conduct field evaluations of drip/micro systems. A team of two students conducted 35 field evaluations.
Distribution Uniformity (DU) – DU is a measure of the uniformity of water application to trees throughout an orchard, with DU = 1.0 being perfect. The measured orchard DUs in the Santa Barbara/Ventura area had an average DU of 0.66, while the California state average for drip/micro is 0.85.
In general, there were substantial opportunities to improve the distribution uniformity (DU) of the water to trees throughout an orchard. An improved DU will minimize over-irrigation in some areas, and reduce under-irrigation in others. Key recommendations that were provided included:
Install a pressure regulator at the head of every hose
With a regular microsprinkler, doubling the pressure causes about 40 percent more water to come out of the nozzle. Pressure regulators are added to have similar pressures throughout the orchard and thus reduce the risk of over-irrigating portions of the field. On many farms, the difference between the highest pressures was double or even triple the lowest pressures (40-70% more water). By adding the correct high-quality, pre-set pressure regulators with the correct flow rate rating, the farmer can get similar pressures to every nozzle and prevent over-irrigation.
For a pressure regulator (PR) to work, more pressure must enter the PR than what the PR is rated for. For example, to use a 25 psi PR, you need at least 27 psi into the PR. All a PR does is reduce pressure; it cannot add pressure.
Another problem on hillsides is that some pipes have as much as 100 psi before the PR. A PR can effectively reduce the pressure down to 50%. What is recommended in these fields is to reduce the pressure in the pipe by adding an in-line valve halfway down the hill and throttling it down to a reasonable pressure.
Completely replace all microsprinkers with pressure compensating microsprinklers
Pressure compensating microsprinklers have an internal flexible diaphragm that reduces a pathway as the pressure increases. These allow similar amounts of water to get the trees even if the hoses do not have the same pressures. Whenever the pressure is doubled, 10 percent more water will come out of these emitters, compared to 40 percent more water with a regular microsprinkler. Having pressure compensating emitters can drastically improve the DU in virtually every avocado orchard because most irrigation systems were not properly designed for microsprinkler systems, or because the farmer has altered the original design by adding different-sized nozzles.
Reduce plugging problems
Major plugging problems are found in all orchards that did not have good filtration, even those that get district water. There were also some “within-system” causes of plugging. Almost all plugging is from simple dirt or rust, as opposed to bacteria or algae. Recommendations are as follows:
- Always have a filter at the head of the system. The required mesh size depends on the microsprinkler flow rate, but 120 mesh is a starting point.
- Remove hose screen washers that are found at the head of hoses, and replace them with regular washers (after installing a filter at the head of the system). The hose screen washers often plug up and cause the hoses to have unequal inlet pressures.
- Be sure to thoroughly flush hoses after any hose breaks.
- Double check the type of fertilizer that is being injected, especially any “organic fertilizers”. Some of these can plug emitters. In any case, inject the fertilizers upstream of the filters. If the filter plugs up, it is better to have discovered the problem early.
- Clean the filters frequently. Install pressure gauges upstream and downstream. When the pressure differential (as compared to a clean screen) increases by 3-5 psi, it's time to clean the screen.
In some orchards, there is a big plugging problem caused by insects crawling into emitters after the water is shut off. Many of the new microsprinkler designs utilize a self-closing mechanism to prevent insects from coming into the nozzle.
We have gotten a reprieve with the rains and refilled reservoirs, but it is ever more important to make sure our irrigation systems are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Call your local Resource Conservation District and get information about a system evaluation. Contact numbers can be found at: http://www.carcd.org/rcd_directory0.aspx