California's farmers use a lot of water, but the right technology – combined with improved infrastructure and water policies – could cut that use by up to 17 percent.

That's the gist of a report from Oakland, Calif.-based Pacific Institute looking at technology, policy and other changes that could help California's massive farming industry cope with droughts of today and tomorrow.

The nonprofit said that a combination of switching from flood irrigation to sprinkler and drip systems, watering crops less when they're in more "drought resistant" stages of growth and using local climate and soil moisture information to manage when to water could save the state six million acre-feet of water during dry years. That's about one-sixth of the state's annual farm water usage.

And "improved irrigation scheduling" – that is, using sensors and models to precisely match irrigation to what plants actually need – could be responsible for about two-thirds of that overall reduction, according to the report.

Whether that opportunity will translate into a profitable line of business remains to be seen. There's no dearth of companies offering technologies to save on water use, from startups like HydroPoint Data Systems and M2M Communications to smart meter system makers and IT giants like IBM.

HydroPoint's WeatherTrak system monitors local weather and landscape conditions to adjust watering patterns for urban landscapes. Businesses and local governments that have landscapes to water can do it quite a bit more efficiently using such systems from HydroPoint or Accuwater, according to another Pacific Institute report (see A Smart Grid for Water).

HydroPoint got started in the urban landscape market because water is more expensive in cities than it is on farms. But the Petaluma, Calif.-based startup also is testing out its ability to save water in two agricultural pilot projects, one at a vineyard and another at an avocado growing operation, CEO Chris Spain said.

Companies like PureSense also help farmers with technology like soil moisture sensors that send data wirelessly to irrigation control systems.

But saving water on the farm is tough, Spain said, for two main reasons. First, many farmers operate under so-called "use it or lose it" water use policies, in which they get no incentive for not using all the water they're allocated, he said.

"Second, the price of water is extraordinarily cheap," he said. "The economics just don't work for them to conserve."

The Pacific Institute agreed that new pricing models will be important for California's water-saving goals. The state also will need to revamp the way it tracks, manages and maintains its water infrastructure, including a statewide water monitoring and data exchange system and upgrading its large-scale water infrastructure so it can deliver water on demand, the report said.

One route to saving water could lie through energy efficiency efforts. Not only does moving water require lots of energy, but new energy generation facilities could be help back by limited access to water for cooling, according to a recent report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program (see U.S. Energy Sector Faces Big Climate Change Threats, Report Finds).

M2M Communications offers growers technology to allow them to turn off massive irrigation pumps during times when utilities are facing peak energy demand. The Boise, Idaho-based company also makes devices to control central pivot irrigation systems to save energy and water (see M2M Brings Demand Response to Farmers).

Water management could also be a growth field for smart meter makers and the companies that support them. M2M is working with smart meter maker Elster on a water and energy-saving pilot program with utility Entergy in Arkansas. Smart meter maker Sensus came out with its own smart water meters this year.

Smart meter networking startup Eka Systems is installing its devices in water meters in a $5 million pilot project with the Texas city of San Marcos, and Silver Spring Networks supplies its meter networking technology to the Modesto Irrigation District (see Eka Systems Dives Into Water World and Silver Spring Smart Meters Get New Homes).

IBM is also installing networking millions of water meters as part of a plan to bring "smart grid" systems to the entire island nation of Malta. It's part of a broader range of IBM products and services aimed at water management (see IBM Dives Into Smart Water Management and IBM Brings Smart Meters to Malta).

And then there's the idea of capturing energy from irrigation ditches that startup Hydrovolts has come up with (see Get Ready for Ditch Power!).

When it comes to saving water – particularly in the world's poorest regions – high-tech solutions may not be as cost-effective as policy and infrastructure improvements, Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick has argued in the past (see 'Peak Water' Requires Low-Cost Solutions).

Still, water efficiency could be a lot less expensive than supply-side solutions – and perhaps a lot easier to put into place. Plans for new reservoirs in California have languished for decades, and while the state legislature is now considering a $10 billion bond package to build more, they're likely to face continuing opposition from environmental groups, the Wall Street Journal notes.

Desalination – turning salt water into fresh water – is another supply-side solution, albeit one that comes at a high price. Regulators in May approved a $320 million plan for what could be California's first desalination plant near Carlsbad, Calif., but the anticipated costs of desalination could be many times the cost of water sold in the state today (see Green Light post).

Various efforts to improve desalination technologies promise to lower these costs (see Forward Osmosis: Can a Startup Reverse Desalination? and A Guide to the Water World).

Image courtesy Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Tags: accuwater, eka systems, elster, hydropoint, m2m communications, pacific institute, peter gleick, puresense, sensus, silver spring networks