"The problem," says Scott Orr, High Plains Underwater Conservation District number one, "is that the farm economy dictates how producers adapt technology. And the farm economy has been bad.

"We don't have a lot of new technology on the horizon that will increase water conservation, especially irrigation, significantly. Of the 13,000 pivots in the district, 75 percent are Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA). So, that battle has been won."

The next step, Orr says, is making certain technology operates as efficiently as possible. "We are trying to get the message out that better management options are available."

Orr says the district offers help in assessing how well systems operate. Ultrasonic flow monitors help analyze irrigation efficiency.

"First, we use these monitors to evaluate the equipment. If the hardware is not up to par, other technology is less useful. For example, if underground pipes are leaking, the system is wasting water, regardless of whether it's LEPA, computer-assisted or using the latest technology to schedule application."

After looking at hardware, Orr says technicians evaluate scheduling. "Potential Evapo-transpiration (PET) rate helps determine water needs," he says. "Other computer programs also may help, but farmers must manage the whole system, not just a few pieces of it to improve efficiency."

Analyzing pumping plants, for instance, also helps gauge water use. "When we get data from every facet of the system, we can make recommendations on improvements," Orr says.

"Production practices also play a significant role. Weed control, for instance, is extremely important. If a farmer doesn't have weeds under control, he's still wasting water. He can't get efficient in one area and miss something equally important."

Orr says in the past farm programs encouraged inefficient water use. "Some programs paid farmers to pump water. The new law, however, includes initiatives to conserve. Producers have to have an incentive to change practice and to conserve. Saving water, saving labor and saving money re good incentives."

He's concerned that some programs, such as PET, may be scrapped as budgets for University Research and Extension Programs dry up. "We don't know how widely PET is used. We can identify a lot of Internet Website hits, but we don't know how many of those actually resulted in using the information to schedule irrigation. We also wonder if farmers will consider using this and other technology on a fee basis. It still comes down to economic feasibility."

In the future, Orr says water conservation will become even more important as populations increase and competition for a dwindling supply intensifies. "We're already seeing farmers wait until the last minute to turn on irrigation systems. Drought tolerant crops may be one answer," he says.

In the meantime, he recommends farmers consider available technology. "A lot of folks have not adopted what's already available," he says. "It's an economic consideration, but much of what's out there is not expensive. The crucial factor is to know what's going on with the system."

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com