New technology being used on a California farm greatly reduces the amount of water used in rice fields. New technology being used on a California farm greatly reduces the amount of water used in rice fields. New technology being used on a California farm greatly reduces the amount of water used in rice fields. (Photo: Sittipong / Shutterstock)

Revolutionary irrigation technique aims to quench California rice paddies

Conaway Ranch will become the first sustainable farming initiative in the state to use the technology for rice.

Rice is traditionally grown by flooding fields with immense amounts of water to feed the rice paddies. One of California’s major crops, the $5 billion rice industry exports to more than 100 countries. But severe water shortages due to the ongoing drought have had a massive impact on rice fields, reducing the crop and leading to millions in losses for farmers.

Now, Conaway Ranch, a 17,000-acre sustainable farming group in Woodland, Calif., has announced a project that aims to reduce the immense amount of water traditionally used to grow rice by leveraging new drip irrigation technology developed in Israel. The savings could be enormous.

What is drip irrigation? The video below explains:

Conaway Ranch is located just east of Sacramento in California’s Central Valley, which in a normal year is one of the most productive farming regions in the world. It and surrounding counties produce much of the state’s tomatoes, walnuts, almonds and grapes, as well as rice. However, the prolonged drought means that farmers get only a relative trickle of water. The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences predicted that Central Valley farmers stood to lose $810 million just in 2014 due to the prolonged drought.

“We believe this initiative represents the first use of drip irrigation in the U.S. for a rice crop," Conaway's Kyriakos Tsakopoulos said in a statement. "This effort could serve as a model for other farms and potentially save hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water in California if widely adopted."

The ranch has partnered with researchers at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University; Netafim, an Israeli pioneer in drip irrigation technology; and Lundberg Family Farms in Butte County, north of Sacramento, to initiate the project.

Eilon Adar, a professor at Ben-Gurion University and one of Israel’s leading water experts, has visited California several times over the past 18 months. He's met with legislators and water resource officials to discuss how Israel has created a surplus of water through innovation, technology and effective water management policies.

Dr. Eilon Adar, one of Israel's leading water experts discusses logistics of the first major drip irrigation project in the US for rice with Kyriakos Tsakopoulos (right), president, principal and chief executive officer of Conaway Preservation Group, owneEilon Adar (left), one of Israel's leading water experts, discusses logistics of the project with Kyriakos Tsakopoulos of the 17,000-acre Conaway Ranch in California. (Photo: Judith Alterman/AABGU)

Agronomists at Netafim have conducted a few similar rice-crop trials in other countries. Based on results from these previous projects, the trial at Conaway Ranch is expected to produce an improvement in yield, while reducing water use. The system is expected to be installed for the first plantings this spring.

“By researching drip irrigation technology for rice cultivation, the Conaway Ranch owners are demonstrating their commitment to smart water conservation and long-term sustainability,” Woodland Mayor Tom Stallard told the Davis Enterprise. “We are so pleased to see this progressive practice being studied so close to our community.”

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