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In a drying West, every drop counts. A new tool could help farmers care for their crops — and themselves

SAN LUIS — When the water is flowing down from the mountains, Joe Lobato wakes up most mornings and drives from his home in San Luis to his fields spread across the valley where his family has farmed for more than 100 years.

During spring and summer runoff, Lobato uses a series of ditches to direct water to the fields where he grows alfalfa, mixed grains and Timothy grass. He strategically opens and closes a series of gates and places tarps in the ditches to direct the water to flood his fields at the right time.

But driving all over Costilla County and manually opening and closing gates or placing tarps to direct water is time intensive — especially since Lobato and his family all work other full-time jobs in addition to farming.

“You have to work a day job to afford to farm or ranch,” he said.

The Lobatos are one of the first farming families in the state to try a new, Colorado-grown technology aimed at reducing farmers’ workload and managing Colorado’s shrinking water supply more efficiently. The Auto Tarp allows farmers to remotely drop irrigation gates and monitor weather and soil conditions from their phones. The 3D-printed gadget was created in a garage outside Gunnison by a rancher who decided water users without lots of money should also have access to water efficiency tools.

“The tech is out there, it’s just really expensive,” said Jesse Kruthaupt, creator of the Auto Tarp and project specialist for Trout Unlimited in the Upper Gunnison Basin.

Three ranchers and farmers have adopted the technology so far as state and regional authorities work to help agricultural water users cut their water use or use water more efficiently as Colorado and the West endure two decades of drought and prepare for long-term projected aridification.

The state’s $47 billion agriculture industry consumes 90% of the water used in Colorado in an average year, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Making sure that water is used efficiently across the industry to protect farming and ranching is one of the goals of the state’s 2023 water plan.

“Innovations are needed to sustain irrigated agriculture, including strategies to stretch available water supplies, increase resiliency, enhance local food production, and maintain profitability,” the water plan states.

Creating more water-efficient and labor-saving irrigation systems is crucial in the West, said Perry Cabot, a research scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Center. Cabot is working on a project that would use artificial intelligence to monitor and water fields.

“We have less and less people wanting to farm, but more and more food we need to produce,” Cabot said.

Many Colorado ranchers and farmers use flood and ditch irrigation methods to water their crops. Flood irrigation helps restore below-ground water supplies and does not require expensive irrigation technology like pivot sprinklers, which are not economical in Colorado’s short growing season or for small producers, Kruthaupt said.

But managing the water correctly to flood the right fields at the right time takes a lot of work. Lobato’s son-in-law, Cody Groff, works in Monte Vista and commutes at least an hour each way to work.

“I can’t just leave work to flip gates,” he said.

An orange tarp and an irrigation gate are pictured in an irrigation ditch on Joseph Lobato’s farm outside San Luis. The Lobato family uses the tarp and the gate to direct water when it flows from spring runoff. (Photo courtesy of Nick Gann/Trout Unlimited)

Kruthaupt started working on the tool in his garage several years ago. The device uses a powerful magnet to hold an irrigation gate open until a user remotely tells the Auto Tarp to release the magnet. When the magnet is released, the gate drops into the ditch and blocks the water’s flow, causing water to spill out of the ditch and flood nearby fields.

Other people had attempted to create a similar device — one involved a wind-up mechanical timer — but nothing had made it to the market, he said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Trout Unlimited a three-year Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant to continue to develop the technology.

Colorado farmers and ranchers who responded to a survey from the University of Wyoming listed improvement of headgates and other water infrastructure as their top need, followed by a need for a more efficient irrigation system. More than half of the surveyed water users said they either use flood or furrow irrigation, which the Auto Tarp is designed for.

The 464 water users who responded also indicated that investing in more efficient water delivery systems would be their preferred method to manage water, instead of other options like harvesting earlier or fallowing fields.

“If producers can manage their water better, they can get it to their fields and their crop,” Kruthaupt said.

Jesse Kruthaupt (left) and Kevin Terry (right) of Trout Unlimited prepare to install an Auto Tarp on an irrigation ditch on Joseph Lobato's field near the town of San Luis. (Photo courtesy of Nick Gann/Trout Unlimited)
Jesse Kruthaupt (left) and Kevin Terry (right) of Trout Unlimited prepare to install an Auto Tarp on an irrigation ditch on Joseph Lobato’s field near the town of San Luis. (Photo courtesy of Nick Gann/Trout Unlimited)

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