Researchers and farmers across the Southwest are experimenting with drones, specialized cameras and other technology to squeeze the most out of every drop of irrigation water from the vital but beleaguered Colorado River.
The river has plenty of water this summer after an unusually snowy winter in the mountains of the West. But climatologists warn the river's long-term outlook is uncertain at best and dire at worst, and competition for water will only intensify as the population grows and the climate changes.
Researchers say agriculture uses most of the river in the U.S. The problem is how to divert some of that to meet the needs of growing cities without drying up farms and ranches.
Experts say soil monitors, Wi-Fi, cellphone apps and farm weather stations could help. The World Resources Institute says the seven Colorado River states have some of the highest levels of water stress in the nation, based on the percentage of available supplies they use in a year.
New Mexico was the only state in the nation under extremely high water stress. The federal government will release a closely watched projection Thursday on whether the Colorado River system has enough water to meet all the demands of downstream states in future years.
The river supplies more than 7,000 square miles of farmland and supports a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry, including a significant share of the nation's winter vegetables, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages most of the big dams and reservoirs in the Western states. The Pacific Institute, an environmental group, says the river also irrigates about 700 square miles in Mexico.
The researcher's goal is understanding crops, soil and weather so completely that farmers know exactly when and how much to irrigate.