Online water-use indicator to help farmers grow crops

February 14, 2009

There’s a new tool available to help both farmers and homeowners easily judge, using current weather data, just how much water different crops require throughout the growing season.

In a presentation for the Okanagan Water Stewardship Council Thursday, Ted van der Gulik, senior engineer in sustainable agriculture management with the agriculture ministry, said the new irrigation scheduling calculator will be online by April.

However, he said the program is based on a network of weather stations, which provide real-time weather data, to keep the calculator current.

That network is losing some federal Environment Canada stations, which are being closed down, and now relies largely on private stations on farms and private residences.

“The calculator is only as good as the real-time data is,” said van der Gulik.

Agriculture researcher Denise Neilsen from the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre in Summerland, who is a member of the council, said some of her research is based on the long-term data from such weather stations, and their loss erodes her ability to do her research into such fields as climate change.

“The agricultural community should make a case to governments to ensure the stations are not shut down,” said van der Gulik.

Council member Brian Guy agreed, and said stations that have been closed should be re-established to ensure such programs as this are based on good data.

The weather station data will be used by farmers, landscapers and gardeners, along with such information as the farm or garden location, crop, soil type and depth, and the type of irrigation system (drip, spray, nozzle size etc.) to determine watering times.

The web site will download real-time data from the nearest weather station to use in calculating how long to water for the most efficient plant growth.

Van der Gulik explained the quantity of water plants need varies during the different months in the growing season, as well as by the type of soil they’re growing in.

Different crops or plants also require different quantities of water for optimum growth, so the new tool will also help farmers and gardeners find the path to the healthiest growing conditions.

The calculator has been set up to make use of such weather information as temperatures and rain events to alter the calculator’s information about watering needs.

The objective is to help farmers water efficiently for better plant health and to conserve water, he said.

“It’s a tool for people to use. It’s up to them to go and use it,” he commented.

Installation of water meters will tend to push people toward using such tools, he noted, and many local utilities are now installing water meters.

The program will be a little more difficult to use for landscape water needs because that varies around a yard, but the user can simply set up different scenarios on the program for different watering zones in the yard, from the high use vegetable garden to the lower use, shady side of the house, and plants with lower water needs.

“There’s far more water wasted on landscape irrigation than on farms,” van der Gulik noted.

Other provinces are watching how B.C.’s irrigation calculator computer program works, with a view to implementing it.

Van der Gulik was presented with a premier’s award earlier this month for the Water Balance Model for B.C., which was created by the Intergovernmental Partnership he chairs.

The calculator will be available at: and by clicking on the irrigation calculator on the left.

It’s not completed yet, as some of the bugs are still being worked out, but those interested can get an idea of how it will work, said van der Gulik.