Irrigated hay meadows in Colorado’s Gunnison Valley are primarily down in the floodplains of rivers and creeks. In the spring when flows are high, ditches guide water from the stream onto the surrounding meadow habitat where the water spreads out before slowly percolating down into the soil. Flood irrigation like this is important because it helps maintain the region’s water table, or below-ground water supply, and keeps water in the system for when it’s needed later in the summer. Kruthaupt said that, because the Upper Gunnison is a high-elevation watershed with a short growing season, it’s hard to justify irrigation infrastructure improvements like sprinklers or pivots that would only be used for a couple of months each year. Instead, producers and conservationists are strategizing ways to improve the efficiency of the systems already in place, which will also help maintain some of the benefits of flood irrigation.
That’s where the auto-tarps come in.
“Really what they do is automate the irrigation scheduling, and that’s where the efficiency comes in,” Kruthaupt said. “One aspect is labor efficiency—they don’t have to come out in the field and make adjustments. Two is the water efficiency—maybe [the rancher] saves eight hours of a set. That’s eight hours that the water could be somewhere else.”
In the San Luis Valley, where a historic, communally-run acequia system directs water onto fields, the labor efficiency aspect of the project is key. Kevin Terry, the Rio Grande Basin Project Manager for Trout Unlimited, said that the CIG could provide farmers and ranchers with an important tool to make their operations easier to manage.
“Most people here do not farm for their primary income source,” Terry said. “They have to take a day off to deal with irrigation. This will save a lot of time in the truck—and a lot of over-application that happens when people can’t get out to the field.
In 2022, two producers in the Gunnison Valley and one in the San Luis Valley will have auto-tarps and LoRa stations installed on their land. In 2023, the project will expand to include one additional rancher in each the Gunnison Valley and San Luis Valley, as well as a producer along the Lower Gunnison River. By the end of the third and final year of the CIG, a total of eight producers will be involved in the project.
“This first year, we just want to get people out to see it to see if it works for them,” Terry said. “But we’re also excited to look at the data to see trends—what worked, what didn’t work, what changed. It doesn’t mean people have to change their operations, it just gives them more information to consider in those decisions.”