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Testing the waters

Orchard and grape growers wanting to improve the sweetness of their fruit and the flavor of their wines are learning the secret is as simple as reducing their water consumption.

A program sponsored by Nevada Irrigation District has brought an agricultural consultant from Davis to 16 local farms this summer to help them use their water more wisely.

“It’s very easy to over irrigate,” said Jim Brockmeyer, the consultant from JVB Consulting. “Water is relatively cheap up here and it’s abundant, so people have got in the habit of irrigating what they think is right and letting the rest run down the ditch.”



Raw water users get the lion’s share of NID’s water, with 145,000 acre feet compared to 9,000 acre feet for treated water customers.

Though all water deliveries will be made this year, water managers are running a tight ship because it is the second year in a row of below average rainfall and snowpack. Some area wells have shown problems early this season.




Many farms continue to use overhead sprinklers and primitive flood irrigation to water crops, said Bill Gann, NID’s business coordinator. By understanding how the soil absorbs water, farmers will be able to irrigate more land for the same price, said Gann.

“We’re really trying to encourage people to have the most bang for their buck,” Gann said.

Each week the consultant Brockmeyer visits farms in Penn Valley, Rough and Ready, Auburn, Chicago Park, Grass Valley and Nevada City to test the water content of the soil using a handheld box called a neutron probe.

He also has done similar work for water districts in Placer, El Dorado County and the Sacramento Valley.

A PVC pipe is installed five feet into the ground and a series of random readings are taken using neutrons that bounce messages off hydrogen molecules in the soil.

A computer then converts the readings into something the farmers can use: How many inches of water are found in one foot of soil.

Soil molecules can only hold so much water and when they are full they have reached “field capacity.”

Farmers are then given a report that will tell them how much water to put on their crops and how often, Brockmeyer said.

The best wines, especially red varieties, come from deficit irrigating or deliberate under-irrigating the vines to bring out desired flavors in the fruit. Yet, over-watering is a common occurrence, he said.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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