Working to Conserve Georgia’s Water Resources

Randall Weiseman Field Crops, Georgia, Water

The C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park (SIRP), located in Camilla, is among the youngest research and education centers in the University of Georgia (UGA) College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences family. Established in 2001, the SIRP center was designed to conduct irrigation research, but also to educate the public on important water issues impacting Georgia’s agriculture industry. Calvin Perry, superintendent of the SIRP center, said it is “dedicated to research, Extension and outreach aspects related to row crop and vegetable irrigation.”

Perry said the SIRP center was founded because of the ongoing issues between southeastern states regarding water usage. For example, a water battle about water conservation between Florida and Georgia reached the Supreme Court in the beginning of 2018. The water war involves the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. These rivers begin in Georgia, then join to form the Apalachicola River, which is near the Florida border and flows into the Apalachicola Bay. Florida began the war by requesting limitations on Georgia’s fresh water use.

Calvin Perry

Perry explained, “Our state and the university felt that we needed to have an established presence in this part of our state to do research, education and outreach,” he explained.

According to Perry, Camilla is a region in Georgia in which a lot of irrigation is used, mostly due to the sandy soils. By having the SIRP center in Camilla, researchers can work with the same crops as the locals to better serve the region.

One of the center’s research goals is to determine methods to conserve water when irrigating. The SIRP team focuses on testing irrigation timing, researching water-efficient hybrids or varieties and using other methods to make sure growers are producing healthy crops while still conserving the state’s water. “We’re not necessarily always saving water, but we’re certainly being more efficient with the water we use so we get more crop per drop,” Perry said.

INVESTIGATING IRRIGATION SCHEDULING
The SIRP center has a number of ongoing projects at any given time of the year. At the beginning of 2018, Perry said SIRP researchers are working with researchers from UGA Tifton on irrigation timing and scheduling. They are studying several different irrigation scheduling methods, including sensor-based, algorithm- or math-formula based and calendar-based methods.

Once results are gathered from the different methods, researchers will compare them to results from a non-irrigated plot. Perry said the researchers will look at plant growth parameters and yield versus how much water was applied.

The SIRP center also studies different varieties that are more drought-tolerant than others. Perry is currently working on a project in which he is comparing conventional and drought-tolerant corn hybrids under overhead and sub-surface drip irrigation systems. “I’m irrigating fully by sensor-scheduling methods. I’m also using deficit irrigation and comparing that to non-irrigated systems,” he said.

OTHER PROJECTS
Although water conservation is the SIRP center’s primary focus, the center also conducts other types of studies. “We do a good bit of work with chemigation, where we’re applying crop inputs through the irrigation system to crops like corn and soybean,” Perry said.

Perry said that it seems like the growers are adapting well to technology. The center has heavily studied a technology called variable rate irrigation. “You can tailor the amount of water you apply to different regions in the field, so you’re putting the optimum amount out to the regions based on that zone’s needs rather than just a blanket approach where you put the same amount everywhere,” Perry explained.

The center’s researchers are also working on more sensor-based technologies that they are currently promoting to growers and fellow UGA Extension agents. Irrigation scheduling by sensors usually involves the use of soil moisture sensors that are placed at multiple depths in the plant’s root zone. The sensors detect the amount of moisture in the soil that’s available to the plant roots. Growers can use the soil moisture values and associated graphs to determine if the soil has reached a ‘trigger point,’ which indicates when it’s time to irrigate to prevent plant stress. This approach works for row crops as well as vegetable, fruit and orchard crops.

MAKING AN IMPACT
A major goal for the center is being able to make an impact on the community and the state’s water usage on farms. For example, the center has been working for years to evaluate irrigation application methods. “Early on, we evaluated the older style, impact sprinkler on top of the center pivot pipe versus the spray-type sprinklers on drip hoses, which are much more efficient,” he said.

After promoting that finding to the public, Perry found out that the word had spread. Some of the SIRP center’s sister organizations, including the Water Planning and Policy Center of Albany State University, have surveyed the use of the more efficient irrigation in deep southeastern Georgia. Those organizations found that over 90 percent of the irrigation systems in that region are using the efficient sprinkler type. “We’re getting the word out, and I feel like we are making an impact,” Perry said.

Visit StriplingPark.org to learn more about ongoing projects at the SIRP center.

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