Creating online access
Success also rested on developing a user-friendly software interface to replace the practice of phoning in delivery orders. Since creating an interactive tool requires dialogue, sizeable portions of early community meetings were devoted to gathering insight into the features, capabilities, and information farmers felt would be helpful for scheduling deliveries online.
Following nine months of information technology, software, and Web design, the “Division 9 Irrigation Information Center” — which is modeled after online airline ticketing — was completed. After logging into the secure site, farmers can access:
- Water Delivery Key — Select delivery dates and hours from a table showing available times within a 48-hour window. The farmer later receives alerts via email or text message before and after delivery confirming volume and flow.
- Historical Insights — Review records of previous deliveries or requests, in data-driven form or graphically, to compare water usage and evapotranspiration rates over the month and year. Data from moisture sensors buried in the ground on each farmer's property is shown to facilitate ordering by indicating when crops are at their greatest need.
- Weather Data — Link to the national weather alert system to request advisories via email or text message and get five- to seven-day forecasts.
- Property Insights — Use the “turn-out-features” function to see both acreage and type of property.
As of July, 76 operation-ready customer turnouts — most of Division 9 — had been installed. Fifty-two are fully connected; the rest belong to farmers who plan to connect the turn-outs to their property systems. Virtually all of the farmers fully connected — not 30% to 40% as anticipated — to use the website to manage their orders. In addition to being able to water crops when most needed, they're benefitting in other ways:
- The gravity-based system often required diesel-fueled pumps to pressurize irrigation on their property, so farmers are saving on fuel and improving air quality.
- Crops are healthier because farmers are using less salinity-stricken groundwater for irrigation.
- Several farmers are planting specialty crops on previously vacant farmland, increasing potential revenues with little, if any, additional cost.
- Yields are expected to increase.
- Monthly charges are fair because they're based on actual use.
“We've gone from being a target for criticism to having growers tell us they love this,” says Bologna. In fact, several farmers that previously relied 100% on well water have become full-time district customers.
With an intensive performance evaluation scheduled to take place later this year, managers are evaluating several opportunities to optimize their new system's capabilities. Based on the monitoring of the pilot program and its outcomes, they're considering extending the system to the rest of Division 9; converting other divisions, or portions of them, to the system; and what to do with surplus water reserves.
“We have a system that no one's ever seen before and we're eager to evaluate the best ways to first service our customers and second strengthen our overall operational reach as a district,” says Bologna.
— Bennett (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Kotey (email@example.com) are principals in the Rocklin, Calif., office of engineering consultants Stantec.