The Flint River Basin Partnership is an agricultural water conservation initiative pioneered by the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and The Nature Conservancy. The partnership was designed to help farmers in the Lower Flint River Basin of Georgia conserve water using new and innovative irrigation technology.
This is how it happens in the movies: a wild-eyed inventor scribbles equations furiously on a blackboard and suddenly shouts, “a-ha!”
Calvin Perry, an agricultural engineer at the University of Georgia (UGA), insists that’s not exactly how it happened when his team invented technology that’s enabling farmers in southern Georgia to save millions of gallons of water — right where The Nature Conservancy is working to keep water in the Flint River.
Irrigation equipment is essentially blind, spraying water on everything in its path. The center pivot type is a 1,000-foot-long web of pipes that looks like a robot warrior moving in a slow circle across crops.
“One day we were looking at aerial photography of a corn field and saw a perfect circle in the middle of it, like a donut, where there was low crop yield. Something was going on,” says Calvin. He and his collaborators – Stuart Pocknee and Craig Kvien – checked it out and found that the nozzles in that one section of pipe weren’t working properly.
“Ok, I guess you could say that was our ‘a-ha’ moment.”
The trio developed Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI), GPS-based technology that makes it possible to selectively turn specific nozzles off as the pivot crawls over even small patches that don’t need water, such as low lying areas too wet to plant.
Worldwide, about 70 percent of water withdrawals goes to agriculture.* Given that just three percent of Earth’s water is fresh water, new technology that reduces the amount that farms need is a big deal.
Calvin grew up on a Georgia farm himself, the kind of kid that would take things apart to find out how they work. After 22 years developing new technologies he knows that it takes a lot to get from idea to farm.
From UGA’s state of the art agricultural research facility near Camilla, his team partners closely with the Flint River Soil and Water Conservation District, a collaborative of farmers taking a leadership role in bringing new ideas and tools like VRI to the drought-prone state.
Farmers aren’t out there plotting against nature. They’re doing what we want them to do: growing food, cotton and other things we need. If they can lighten their impacts while still making a living, they’re generally receptive.
And by reducing water use, VRI technology also saves them money.
“That’s when I saw the light bulb come on with farmers,” says Calvin.
Farming today is highly technologically sophisticated but farmers don’t generally have extra money lying around to take a chance on new gadgets. The first iteration of VRI costs up to $30,000, so UGA and the District went to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Confident of the potential nationwide benefits, the agency has invested over a million dollars to get the technology on the ground.
Farms in southern Georgia irrigate mostly from groundwater. If groundwater levels drop too low, river water can be pulled underground. And when a river drops too low for too long, nature suffers. In the southeastern U.S., mussels are usually the first domino to fall.
“When we saw that mussels in the streams and smaller rivers that feed into the Flint were in trouble, we knew that the whole river system was heading in a bad direction,” says Conservancy Project Manager David Reckford.
“We realized that the key to saving the woods, the wildlife, everything, was to help farmers conserve water.” So David took on an unusual role. “I help connect the inventors to the reality of farming,”
David walks fields with farmers, asks questions, listens and takes that intel back to Calvin’s team.
One day last spring, in an office overlooking peanut crops, David, Calvin and his team sketched out an idea: a simple gadget that lets farmers control the nozzles by simply pushing a button on a small metal box.
The farmer walks the pivot system around the field to a precise spot where it should stop spraying water, presses the button, then walks the pivot to the spot where it should turn the nozzles back on. From then on the pivot knows where to skip watering.
A manufacturer snapped up the innovation, rushed it through production and just got it on the market. “It’s hot off the presses,” says Calvin.
So far, the farmers in the Lower Flint River basin using VRI technology — along with three additional innovations in technology and farming practice — have reduced their water use by about 30 percent, adding up to 10-15 billion gallons of water a year.
According to Calvin, a quarter million center pivot systems are used around the world, from Africa to Australia, and VRI could be used anywhere that there are places on farm fields that don’t need water.
It’s predicted that by 2050 there will be 9 billion people living on the planet, all needing food and water. And in a competition for water, nature always loses. To save what we love, we have to be in the mix with farmers, helping them find a healthy balance among food, water and nature.
“We’ve got to grow more with less,” says Calvin. “We’ll keep trying to dream up ideas down here in Georgia.”