Errotabere Ranches, a 6,000-acre diversified farming operation based at Riverdale, Calif., has taken the plunge, so to speak, into drip irrigation to deal with unknown supplies of surface water.

As they awaited word of this year's allocation from the Westlands Water District, Jean Errotabere, a partner in the family enterprise, said the choices were slim: either put the 3,600 acres of their land within the district under drip or farm less ground.

Regardless of the amount they receive this year, they, like other innovative growers in the district, are moving toward drip irrigation as an eventuality. As they conserve water they also see benefits of increasing yields.

“It's a matter of finding ways to be more efficient in view of high costs and shortages of water. We're fortunate today to have the technology to stretch every drop as far as we can. If we didn't have drip, we'd just have to fallow more ground,” he said.

The shift to drip irrigation reflects just another evolution in crops and methods started by the family patriarch, also named Jean, who emigrated from the Pyrenees in 1948 and settled in Riverdale.

He worked his way from sewing sacks on a grain harvester into farming cotton, alfalfa, and grain on his own. After his death in 1979, his widow Georgianne and their three sons continued to build the operation.

By the mid-1980s, the family had expanded with more land in the area between Five Points and Huron on the West Side of Fresno County, and today they farm melons, tomatoes, garlic, almonds, lettuce, and other crops.

The functions are divided between the three brothers: Dan handling business and ag industry activities, Jean in charge of all crop production, and Remy managing equipment.

Jean Errotabere said their present situation with water means the Westlands allocation, whatever it is, could likely need to be supplemented by well water. The 640 acres of almonds have first priority for most, if not all, the surface water, and the balance will be drawn from wells.

The hazard with using well water on almonds in Westlands is the water carries enough naturally occurring boron to cause defoliation and eventual death of the trees.

“We know it can be a problem because others tried unsuccessfully to grow almonds with well water on the West Side in the 1950s, although the boron is not high enough to cause problems with our other crops.”

He explained that even a little boron in water applied by drip can concentrate the harmful element in pockets without the volume to leach it down below the sensitive almond trees' root zone.

Their almonds, a welcome contrast to waning returns for cotton and other field crops, were planted in stages in 1999, 2000, and 2003, even as the brothers anticipated possible future shortages in district allotments.

The trees are Nonpareils, with Monterey, Wood Colony, and Fritz pollinators, planted 22 by 18 feet, under 6-mil, T-Tape lines with emitters every 60 inches.

“We don't know how much district water we'll have this year,” Errotabere said. “It all depends on the amount and speed of the snow melt for San Joaquin River flood releases and what might come from water exchanges.”

They limited the almond acreage so that even if their supply shrinks to 20 percent of their district allocation, they would still have enough for their trees.

Last fall they completed links between their five wells, which are about 900 feet deep and have 250- to 325-horsepower pumps, for the acreage with 6.5 miles of 15-inch buried PVC pipelines. Water then is routed through booster pumps, smaller lines, filter stations, and on to the drip lines.

The entire system, including filters, booster pumps, drip tape, and other equipment, represents an investment of $600 per acre.

Underground lines eliminate losses to evaporation and percolation involved with using ditches, as well as the costs of shifting surface pipes from field to field.

“Our blocks are contiguous, so we could link all the wells with pipelines. We have discharges at Westlands meters so we can blend well water with water from district canals to irrigate our onions and other crops,” Errotabere said.

“We can run all the wells together in the system and then take water out anywhere on the ranch we need it,” he said, adding that they've had similar buried PVC pipelines for their Riverdale ground for years.

Adding to the uncertainties of surface water supplies, more wells are being drilled this year by other growers on the West Side, causing the water table to drop. As Errotabere put it, “the more straws in the bowl, the faster the water goes down.”

“Agri-Valley Irrigation supplied the sand-medium filters, tape, valves, and other equipment. They designed the system and helped us with the setup,” he said.

Other than the drip lines, the visible portion of the system is the new set of six, portable, sand-media filter stations, designed and built in the Errotaberes' shop.

Each station, fabricated from 8-inch, steel I-beam and 4-inch by 6-inch tubular steel, supports four sand-media filters and can handle 1,200 gallons per minute for 160 acres.

This year they will be used on 1,000 acres of tomatoes and melons, and more acreage will be added next year. The portable design eliminates the need for a boom truck and trailer to move them.

Once a station is lifted by a three-point-hitch of a tractor, and axles and wheels are slipped into place, it can be towed by the same tractor to the next block.

“This year all the T-Tape lines for our tomatoes and melons will be on the surface in the furrows, and next year after we have experience with the system, some may be buried. We're working with our neighbors who also have drip to find out what works best.”

Errotabere said they are leaving the tape on the surface so it can be easily taken up before harvest. At this point, they don't want to be committed to buried tape because of the various row spacings of their crops, such as tomatoes on 66-inch, garlic and lettuce on 40-inch, melons on 80-inch, and Pima on 33-inch, and crop rotation schedules.

“That gives us the flexibility to expand or contract our acreage of a crop, depending on the market, without having to dig up the tape,” he said, adding that next year they plan to bury tape in fields intended for two seasons of tomatoes and see how it works out.

Since a certain amount of damage occurs in taking out the drip lines, they want to weigh the costs of removal and repair for reuse against costs of replacing with new tape.

Errotabere said they will be learning as they go this year, but he expects the drip system to use about half as much water as furrows would on melons, while on tomatoes it may take about 20 percent less.

The annual crops will be pre-irrigated with sprinklers and the drip system will be turned on after planting. Drip lines will be in place all year for the almonds and 60 to 70 days for the growing season of the produce crops.

“In addition to savings on water,” Errotabere said, “we expect to see some increased yield from exact placement around the root zone of fertilizer injected through the lines. And instead of a furrow irrigation that takes 10 days, you can do the job in two days.”

They have an agronomist to calculate irrigation schedules with CIMIS weather data and plan four to five days in advance when to actuate the system.

“In the Westlands Water District where we have uncertainties in water allocations,” he concluded, “this is the only direction growers can go to farm as much ground as they can with the water they have.

“In years when the district allocation is up they can farm all of it, but this year we are seeing a lot of quarter-sections being idled because growers are using their allocation to farm other fields.”