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Gaming Gravity: How Farmers & Ranchers Are Using The Flow Of Water To Power Operations On Their Land

Agriculture uses a lot of water. But what if that water were used for more than growing food? What if it could generate energy—renewable energy? It can, and a program in Colorado is helping farmers harness hydropower to lower costs, save time—and conserve the water itself.

From H2ORadio

In May of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. It allowed any American, including freed slaves, to head west and claim up to 160 acres of federal land—for free. The only hitch was that the settlers had to build a home and farm the land within five years—a requirement that was a lot easier if the claim had water nearby. But even then, the farmer would have to get that water onto fields to grow crops. Many did that by cutting ditches that diverted water from streams or rivers.

Tyler Snyder ranches just outside Yampa, Colorado, in the northwest part of the state, and he has several hundred acres that were part of several old homesteads. Back in the early 1900s, farmers grew potatoes, head lettuce, and strawberries on his fields by flooding meadows with diverted water.

Snyder is pretty impressed that those early settlers dug ditches in these rocky conditions using only picks and mules pulling plows—partly because he recently spent months digging miles of trench himself. It was slow going and time-consuming because he had to screen out rocks to make sure nothing would sit against pipe he was laying.

More than a century later, Snyder has installed pipelines that move water differently on his property than those historic ditches—a move that is saving him time, labor, and money—plus conserving the water itself.

A whooshing sound pierces the air as water starts to flow through the pipe. It’s going to a “center pivot” in the meadow where we're standing. A center pivot is a way of irrigating that makes those bright green circles you see from airplanes. Water comes up in the middle of a field and motorized wheels move a long arm with sprinklers around in a circle.

But Snyder’s center pivot is different than ones you might see in other parts of the country. It’s a “hydro-mechanical” center pivot for irrigation. It’s called hydro-mechanical because it’s powered by moving water—no diesel or electricity is required to make it work—just gravity. The pressure that builds as the water is piped down the hillside is great enough to spin a turbine, which provides energy for its hydraulic motors.

After the pivot pressurizes, water starts to spray out of nozzles strung along the long arm that stretches over a quarter of a mile out into Snyder’s field, putting the droplets exactly where they need to go.

Snyder says that flood irrigation uses only about 30-40 percent of the water in order to grow the same quality crop as you do with an efficiency project that uses all the water that you put on because it doesn’t run off. He says when he was flood irrigating, the water would collect at the bottom of his fields, often leaving the top land burnt and dry.

That moving water would also lead to erosion because, as he explains, when you send water down a ditch—especially if you have steep hillsides as he does on his ranch—it can cause quite a bit of damage.

“Eventually you’re going to have to send the water down faster than it should go to get to different areas. And that causes gouges—nothing that can’t be fixed—but for a rancher, it’s not a priority because once a wash is there, it’s there.”

By switching to the hydro-mechanical center pivot he’s not only irrigating his fields more efficiently, he’s able to spread it across more land. He was flood irrigating 300 acres, but now he’s spread his reservoir water out over 500 acres and making the most efficient use of the resource.

That efficient use of water is something Sam Anderson likes to hear. He’s an energy specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and through a program called "ACRE3" he helped Snyder get the funding he needed to install his system.

ACRE3 stands for “Advancing Colorado’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency.” It’s an energy grants program that provides funding for farmers and agricultural producers to install renewable energy systems or energy efficiency projects in their operations—and take advantage of energy resources they already own as part of their land.

Resources they already own means, quite literally, falling water. Water drops nearly 380 feet from the top of Snyder’s property to his fields, and that’s a lot of hydropower if harnessed. Most of us hear "hydropower" and think of Hoover Dam with its huge concrete wall, big intake towers, and torrents of water. But with “micro-hydro,” like what Snyder is doing, a farmer can capture the power of water with just a fraction of that.

Anderson explains that micro-hydro works without building reservoirs or dams. Farmers just use existing conduits or waterways and take advantage of the hydropower resource that’s already there.

One of those existing hydropower resources is the numerous irrigation ditches and canals crisscrossing the state. But Snyder’s ranch is in the mountains; could a farmer down on the flat eastern plains do micro-hydro, too? Jim Park of Kersey, Colorado, did.

Park has an old homestead that’s been in his family for four generations. Standing next to a ditch that runs parallel to his field, he explains that with his micro-hydro system he’s just using the water for two or three minutes as it gets piped down a small hill to a turbine and then it flows back into the ditch.

It’s pretty flat in this area, but the 25-foot drop on his property is actually enough to generate electricity. The trick, he says, is concentrating the water in a pipe.

“It goes into a pipeline and that turbine down there has movable gates that open or close," he said. "That determines how much water goes through the turbine. If you close that down it’s gonna stack the water up.”

He explains that “stacking water” in a pipe builds up pressure that then can turn a turbine—and unlike Snyder, who used hydraulic power to run his center pivot—Park is actually generating electricity and sending it to the grid—the same way you would if you had solar panels on your house.

He laughs and says, “It’s like Hoover Dam, only smaller,” adding that “the secret of all hydro is that the higher you can stack water the more power it can generate.“

Last year he generated around 10,000 kWh a month—nearly enough electricity to nearly offset the cost of running his center pivot. For reference, a typical home uses around 12,000 kWh per year.

Park smiles broadly and says the nice thing about hydro is it works day or night.

“It works whether the wind blows or wind doesn’t blow,” he said.

And while it’s true that water moves whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, there’s an interesting and perhaps ironic twist about Jim Park’s hydroelectric system...The only reason he was able to pay for it is because of royalties from oil and gas. He points to a cluster of well pads across the road that are on his land. “I wouldn’t have done it had that not been the case.”

Yes, fossil fuels paid for renewable energy.