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Cutting-edge companies find new ways to save water

SYLVESTER - With the state cracking down on how much water farmers can use for irrigation, once state-of-the-art technology like switches that automatically turn off when it rains are becoming standard across Georgia.

But some companies in the irrigation business are moving well beyond "end gun'' and rain gauge shutoffs on those long center-pivot irrigation systems that dot the rural Georgia

landscape.

The computer age has arrived in the farm belt. Farmers willing to pay the price now can buy into an online network that lets them know what's happening in their fields, from temperature to humidity to soil moisture. Using that information, they can run their irrigation systems from their home laptops, without setting foot outdoors.

"The technology isn't new,'' said Joe Dylinski, president of Automated Irrigation Controls, which set up in shop in Sylvester about 11⁄2 years ago. "We're just taking it out of an industrial setting and putting in into ag. Nobody's ever done it.''

Today, companies like Dylinski's are on the leading edge in developing irrigation technology designed to minimize water use, not only saving farmers money but helping them meet the tougher requirements being handed down by environmental

regulators.

Once a seemingly limitless commodity, water has become a precious resource in Georgia. The state has been carrying on a legal fight for years with Alabama and Florida over how much surface water and ground water Georgia can take before its rivers and aquifers reach those states.

The pressure intensified when Georgia suffered a severe drought from 1998 through 2002, prompting state officials to declare a moratorium on new irrigation permits in the Flint River Basin, where much of Georgia's farming is concentrated.

Conservation mandate

When the Environmental Protection Division lifted the moratorium in March in the Flint River Basin, the agency declared that all new permits will include water conservation requirements.

At a minimum, farmers must install shut-off switches on end guns - the long nozzles that extend from the end of center pivots to water areas that the pivot can't reach - to prevent watering areas that don't contain crops, primarily roads.

In portions of the Flint basin where scientific research has shown a close connection between the flow of ground water and the levels of surface streams, new irrigation systems also will have to be equipped with rain gauge shutoffs and devices to turn off pumps if a system malfunctions.

"These are some very basic conservation measures, not exotic things,'' said Rob McDowell, a regional water planner for the EPD. "They're standard practice in other areas and will become standard practice here.''

What McDowell might consider "exotic'' is the next generation of irrigation technology being developed by researchers in both the public and private sectors.

One of those new technologies, called "variable rate irrigation,'' is being developed by the University of Georgia in conjunction with several public and private partners. Variable rate irrigation allows farmers to turn nozzles on and off as center pivots pass alternatively over areas with crops and stretches that don't need water.

Dylinski said a major flaw with the technology is that it relies on global positioning satellite systems.

"With GPS, you're limited to how many satellites you can ping on and weather conditions,'' he said.

Radio technology

Instead of GPS, Automated Irrigation Controls uses radio technology. A 110-foot tower and antenna behind the company's Sylvester office is able to pick up radio signals from data boxes located on center pivots within 20 miles.

Bryan Pike, the company's vice president, said plans are in the works to build additional towers in Dawson, Camilla and Thomasville.

"That's almost all of southwest Georgia with four towers,'' he said.

The company converts the data into a format that is compatible with the Internet. Farmers then can log on from their home or office computers to get real-time soil and weather conditions in their fields, so they don't have to drive to each pivot

themselves.

"What used to take a whole day you can do literally in an hour,'' Dylinski said.

For $1,300 per pivot, farmers can buy a "read-only'' system that gives them the information but no operational control. For $2,500 per pivot, they get the ability to turn their systems on and off, regulate the flow of water and move the pivots around.

McDowell said the state isn't requiring farmers to have such cutting-edge technology because of the expense.

In fact, cost is a major drawback of the new systems, said Julie Mayfield, vice president and general counsel for the Georgia Conservancy and a member of the Georgia Water Coalition.

"It's got to be made less expensive to be used widely,'' she said.

But Dylinski said the technology becomes a better deal financially every day, as the cost of the gasoline farmers use in their pickup trucks keeps going up. Not to mention the diesel fuel a farmer saves when he finds out immediately that his irrigation system has a malfunction instead of finding out when he drives out to check a pivot.

"It'll pay you back every year,'' he said.