Experiment in Irvine takes crops' water use to new lows

They don't want to know how much water it takes to grow blueberries; they want to know how little it takes

On a recent afternoon, Santa Ana winds swept through a sunny, 200-acre swath of Irvine where a quiet experiment could have a major impact in the blueberry world.

Darren Haver, director of the South Coast Research and Extension Center, pointed to a patchwork of the berries. For three years, five pipes have been applying varying amounts of water to sections of the crop. The goal, Haver said, is discovering just how little water it takes for the blueberries to be both economically viable for growers and tasty enough for consumers.

It's an experiment in a drought-stricken California agricultural community that's gaining relevance every day.

If Haver and his team discover that magic water number, they want to make it known.

"Part of my job as an advisor is to take that information and put it in a format that a farmer could use or the general public could use," he said. "It's my job to distill it down."

The South Coast Research and Extension Center was established in 1956 as part of the University of California system's agricultural and horticultural studies. Some of the center's recent efforts have been related to the drought, such as the blueberry experiment and creation of a demonstration garden fit for California weather.

The center also studies a small weather station that gathers a variety of data, including rainfall into a little bucket that mostly sits dry these days. The station is on a small, grassy field that, like the blueberries, is being tested to see how well it does on as little water as possible.

Down the way from the weather station, Haver showed off a few of the center's dragon fruit that unlike, say, almonds, does well in a limited-water situation.

"We need to find more crops like this," he said.

Irvine residents, however, don't have to worry about the city's farmers using lots of precious water resources. About 97% of the water used by Irvine farmers is recycled, which isn't subject to Gov. Jerry Brown's recent orders to reduce statewide water usage, said Irvine Ranch Water District Beth Beeman. Getting to that high recycled-water level, she added, is the result of a partnership between the farmers and the water district for more than 10 years.

The drinkable water that farmers do end up using amounts to 0.3% of the entire district's drinkable supply, Beeman said.

A.G. Kawamura, a former California secretary of agriculture under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is one of Irvine's farmers using the recycled water. He helps run Orange County Produce, which maintains more than 400 acres of rented farmland.

Irvine's reclaimed water is "some of the best water, really, on the planet in terms of how much they clean it up before they can use it," Kawamura said. "We're fortunate that our Orange County water agencies are very forward-thinking. They've always recognized that we live in a drought-prone area."

Kawamura added that the recycled water is good enough that "we're growing the same crops we've always grown." The farmers use drip irrigation, sensors and "basically all the tools we can to conserve water," he said.

"We always want to use just the right amount of water to make sure our crops can thrive," Kawamura said. "It doesn't benefit us to use any more water than we need for us to do what we're trying to accomplish.... I certainly hope that the public can appreciate how we can get this right."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

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