Building a Drought Resilience Network for Ag in the Western US

According to the National Drought Resilience Partnership (NDRP), “In 2012, approximately two-thirds of the continental U.S. was affected by chronic drought. Severe droughts are projected for the next several decades, impacting the nation’s communities and economy”. Some have come to call this the era of the megadrought in the Western US specifically. The region is particularly susceptible to sever drought conditions given its natural history. In ancient times unusually cool periodic conditions over the Pacific Ocean pushed storm tracks further north, and starved the region of precipitation resulting in megadroughts similar to the ones we are seeing currently.

Additionally, with global warming proceeding average temperatures since 2000 have been pushed 2.2 degrees F above what they would have been otherwise. Because hotter air tends to hold more moisture, that moisture is being pulled from the ground. This has intensified drying of soils already starved of precipitation, compounding the problem into a perfect storm of drought for years to come across the region.

Groundwater Impacts of Drought

One of the many facets of life that drought effects is the groundwater available for agriculture. Farmers rely on groundwater as their primary source of irrigation water during years with little precipitation. The passing of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in the state of California has changed many parts of the state’s dynamic agricultural industry, but one of the practices it require, conservation, requires investment in irrigation efficiency solutions. A crucial piece to any efficiency effort will be measurement. Given the high costs of labor taking regular readings at mechanical flow meter at all the pumps spread across sometimes multiple ranches is cost-prohibitive and just not practical. Having to make management decisions based on poor data from cellular-based solutions is also another cost to becoming more efficient with their water that farmers have to bear.

Water Problems are Data Problems

This is why the research team at the Mortensen Center of Global Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and Virridy partnered to provide a much needed service to the ag communities of California and Colorado. The bulk of our experience at Virridy has been derived from monitoring water for 3M people a day in some of the most remote parts of East Africa using low-cost networks. By leveraging this experience the team at Boulder received a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to develop the Drought Resilience Impact Platform (DRIP), a software forecasting and planning tool to help all stakeholders better manage groundwater resources in times of drought:

“DRIP utilizes satellite-based groundwater pump sensors, in-situ microbial water contamination fluorimeters, advanced soil health sensors, and mechanistically informed, machine-learning calibration tools to monitor water quality, food security and groundwater demand, and create forecasting models for integrated decision support that enables proactive responses to changing conditions, including market design and sustainable food and water management.”

Key to enabling ubiquitous remote connectivity to these remote locations is the technology provided by Swarm Technologies. Virridy chose Swarm to provide reliable, global connectivity for its latest sensors. With 100% global coverage and no dead zones, Swarm’s network enables Virridy’s devices to transmit data from even the most far-flung fields, at all times. Consistent access to data is critical for growers to be able to make informed decisions, and Swarm ensures that the sensors are able to transmit no matter where they’re deployed.

But it wasn’t just coverage that made Swarm the perfect satellite partner for the DRIP program. The sky-high cost of most legacy satellite providers was not compatible with deploying sensors across 200 sites, especially for a grant-funded initiative trying to make a huge impact with a limited budget. Swarm’s low-cost hardware and data service – 6-7 times less expensive than some providers – enables the DRIP program’s funding to go further.

Long Term Agriculture Benefits  

Along with a sophisticated model to help groundwater managers forecast and plan in a drought environment the team is also interested in understanding how it might find solutions to farmer’s increasing needs for IoT solutions on their pumps. SGMA implementation is still in its early days and it’s not clear what the feedback from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) will yet be regarding the Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) submitted by the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA). However, given the natural tension between achieving long term sustainability required by the State of California and agriculture’s continued increase in crop production to meet growing global demand intelligent solutions will need to be developed to achieve outcomes that work well for both parties.

Virridy believes the work it’s doing on DRIP project will lay the foundation for agriculture to take advantage of in the coming months and years as SGMA conservation measures are implemented. By using more reliable networks that produce higher quality data we will help paint the most robust picture of groundwater pumping ever seen in the state of California and Colorado. With this unique understanding win-win solutions can be crafted to help agricultural communities continue to thrive in the era of the megadrought.