Community Ag Alliance: A unique opportunity for mountain irrigators

Christine Shook/For the Steamboat Today

Recent research conducted by the Colorado Energy Office suggests Colorado farmers spend an annual average of $33,000 on electricity, $16,000 on diesel fuel and $8,000 on gasoline costs necessary to run their day-to-day operations. In many cases, a significant portion of this cost goes towards power to run irrigation pumps. While many irrigators in the Yampa Valley use flood irrigation to water their crops, rising costs of water, time and labor associated with flood irrigation practices have caused many producers to look into transitioning to a more efficient sprinkler system. This presents a unique opportunity for irrigators in mountainous terrains to use their surrounding environment to their advantage by installing microhydro turbines to power their sprinklers.

In simple terms, the sprinkler uses the energy of falling water to drive and pressurize the center pivot. This eliminates the need for electricity or a diesel pump, which reduces annual operating expenses. Potential replication of these systems depends on the elevation drop available and the existing water right, making many mountain Irrigators prime candidates. Though installation of the turbine could increase upfront costs more than a traditional pivot, the device can save estimated energy costs in annual fuel/electricity that will make up for the investment in as little as three years. Where applicable, installations that retrofit existing electrically powered center pivots with a microhydro-system can also further lower energy costs by offsetting purchases of grid electricity at a full retail rate. To date, two agricultural producers in Routt County have installed these innovative systems with success. By adopting a more efficient system to water the same acreage and implementing irrigation water management strategies, these producers are not only conserving water, but also supporting the use of renewable energy for on-farm applications.

Producers in Routt County worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service field office in Steamboat Springs to come up with a plan and explore potential funding opportunities to offset out-of-pocket expenses. Once NRCS engineers worked with local contractors to construct a design, producers applied for and received partial funding for the projects through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers for the planning and implementation of natural resource conservation efforts for a variety of projects. The Colorado Department of Agriculture has also partnered with the NRCS, Rural Development and the Colorado Energy Office to promote the development of these systems and offer another potential match in funding.

For more information about the development and installation of a micro-hydro powered system or for any other questions on technical or programmatic opportunities, stop into the local NRCS Field Office in Steamboat Springs or call 970-879-3225, ext. 3. We are located at 1475 Pine Grove Road, Suite 201A.

Christine Shook is a soil conservationist with the USDA/NRCS.

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