With the western U.S. still facing a record multiyear drought, and unpredictable cycles of such conditions expected to extend into the future, designing strategies to distribute and conserve water resources has become vital to both the economy and the livelihood of an increasing population. Concern is especially mounting over the inefficiency of agriculture irrigation — farms across the country have access to 80 percent of freshwater, and without the technology to manage their water usage, they waste up to 60 percent of it. That’s billions of dollars worth of a precious commodity down the drain.
Colorado and California alone use about 47 million acre feet (15.4 trillion gallons) of water for agricultural use each year. To put this in perspective, that’s enough water to fill the Empire State Building 55,333 times. Assuming an average market value of $2,000/acre fo0t (prices range from $1,000 to $10,000 in places like California and Colorado), the total value of all of this water is about $94 billion each year. That’s big business. In fact, that’s nearly twice the value of all the agricultural output across Colorado ($7 billion) and California ($42 billion). As water scarcity looms over the West, how can farmers become incentivized to use their water resources more efficiently?
A Colorado company called SWIIM thinks they have the answer. SWIIM has developed a software suite, instrumentation, and remote-sensing package which they see as the water-equivalent of an “electricity saved and returned to the grid” play. The system is designed to provide farmers with the tools to maximize every drop of their consumptive water rights by monitoring usage on their land, making decisions based on the information aggregated on the platform, and leasing a portion of their water to municipal, industrial, and environmental users for cash. Farmers can completely tend to their crops while getting paid to block off and share would-be wasted water — a viable alternative to the unsustainable “buy-and-dry” method, in which land is sold and often becomes permanently fallow.
Funded by both state and federal grants, co-developed by the USDA, and partnered with research teams from Colorado and Utah State Universities, SWIIM, or Sustainable Water & Innovative Irrigation Management, began its development in 2010; not long before the current drought in California became a critical problem. SWIIM involves the use of both remote and installable sensing technology to collect and send real-time data to the software platform, where the information can then be synthesized and reported to regulatory bodies. SWIIM claims that with every 500 acres covered, farmers can expect to earn an additional $50,000- $100,000 annually.
CEO Kevin France told AgFunder that, to date, SWIIM is the only farm planning tool that accurately estimates all aspects of the crop water budget. “We isolate each element, from planning to management to monitoring, and connect them all to one platform,” he said. “To attempt to do it any other way would be kind of like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with 15 pieces missing.”
With the impacts of climate change becoming increasingly evident, it might seem like a no-brainer to just request that farmers start conserving water more efficiently, but it’s not that simple. France explained that in the West, water rights are akin to personal property rights. Water is owned the same way a person might own a home or a car. “It’s of tangible value. It’s how [farmers] generate income, how they feed their families, how they put their kids through college,” he said. SWIIM’s goal is to remove the ambiguity that surrounds quantifying the amount of water needed to sustain crops, and how much can be sent elsewhere for additional income. That way, conservation becomes more than a nice idea.
SWIIM’s target market for the next three years zeroes in on what France calls an 18-state “sweet spot” section of the West — that adds up to 822,683 ag operations, and over 500 million acre feet of water to optimize — but the key focus is on farms within certain areas of California and Colorado. California and Colorado alone have 57 million acres of farmland, and 118,200 farms. France said that SWIIM also has market interest in countries with arid climates, like Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. He hopes that with an all-inclusive monitoring package like SWIIM available, farmers and ranchers in drought-prone regions can take a more active approach to conserving water.
“In the end, I’d love to see water resources taken more seriously and treated with more respect,” France said.
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