Master irrigators share learning to conserve at Ogallala Aquifer Summit

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
Brandi Baquera, shown in inset at upper left, manages the Colorado Master Irrigator program, which graduated its first 25-member class last winter. The basin-wide voluntary educational project in the Republican River watershed is underwritten in part by a grant from the Colorado Water Resources Board.

One farmer claimed to have learned more in one day of master irrigator training than he had in five years of farming on his own.

For another, the light bulb came on when he realized by making one simple change he could save $10,000 a year.

Colorado Master Irrigator program manager Brandi Baquera was thrilled to share those glowing endorsements during a panel presentation at the virtual Ogallala Aquifer Summit in late March. She always believed the program’s “one-stop shop” format was exactly what the region’s irrigated farmers needed.

The first class of the master irrigator program, which was held a little over a year ago, offered 32 hours of instruction to 25 producers who collectively farm 20,000 acres across multiple counties in the Republican River Basin.

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Baquera is scheduled to talk more about how the program works and the success it has achieved on March 25 during a San Luis Valley water education webinar, hosted by the Colorado Ag Water Alliance.

While program participation is currently limited to the Republican Basin, Baquera is eager to see the concept spread and get adopted by other advisory teams and coordinators across the state.

“Literally this is exactly what we need,” she said in a recent phone interview. “We’re not forcing people to do anything, but we’re teaching them how they can do this and make it beneficial.”

How to conserve water, without putting farmers out of business or harming the local economy, has always made it difficult to translate talk into action.

“Conservation has been a conversation out here for so long,” Baquera said. “It’s not for lack of trying, it’s just finding the right formula. It’s about connecting all the dots.”

“So many different groups of people are working on the same thing but doing it separately. This is something that brings it all together: farmers, academics and scientists."

Farmers taking the training don’t just sit through a class on theory; they learn about water use efficiency practices and technologies immediately applicable to their farms.

The curriculum is developed by an advisory committee consisting of local experts, with emphasis on the unique features of the basin. Participants are awarded a $2,000 stipend, along with a package of additional incentives that include free energy audits, discounts from local businesses and service providers, and prioritization for cost-share grants through the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Most importantly, it emphasizes peer-to-peer interaction, discussion and learning.

“It’s not regulatory whatsoever, it’s all voluntary,” Baquera emphasized.

Connecting dots to save drops

Baquera was new to the Burlington area and looking for a job that would give her the flexibility she needed as a working mother when she found the ideal position as district manager for Plains Groundwater Management District.

“I came to the district not knowing anything about groundwater, not knowing the rules or the policies,” she said.

She quickly learned why conservation seemed to come up in every conversation.

“If you are not in the water business in some way, you really have no idea how quickly we are running out of water. It scared me,” Baquera said.

The dilemma was how to cut back on water use without causing harm to area farms.

A promising solution materialized in 2018, when Baquera attended the first-ever Ogallala Aquifer Summit, held in Garden City and organized by the federally funded Ogallala Water Coordinated Agriculture Project, a Colorado State University-led consortium that spans all eight states that lie atop the aquifer.

That first summit was organized strategically to encourage networking and small group sharing. Baquera ended up at a table with a board member and co-founder of a master irrigator program at the North Plains Groundwater Conservation District in Dumas, Texas. That project was also featured during the two-day program.

Baquera was impressed. So much so that she and a small group of fellow enthusiasts from Colorado traveled to the Texas panhandle to learn more about it.

“I pushed for having it up here,” she said. “I was stubborn enough not to want to give it up, and that’s how I became the coordinator.”

After considerable legwork, an advisory group was formed in late 2018, and the program launched a year later. Along the way, Baquera took a new job as a state water commissioner in the area, but made it a condition of her employment that she continue to manage the program.

“Because I’m so passionate about it, it was important to me to be able to do both,” she said.

Baquera is not alone in her enthusiasm for the format. Neighboring states are also setting up master irrigator programs.

When guest speakers from Kansas came to Burlington to give a presentation on Local Enhanced Management Areas, known as LEMAs for short, they took the idea of the master irrigator program home with them and turned it into a series of on-line training modules.

Several collaborators at Oklahoma State University launched a master irrigator program for the first time this winter at the Oklahoma Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Goodwell. They plan to modify it and offer it more widely across the state in future years.

“It’s spreading across the Ogallala,” Baquera said. “Our dream is to have federal funding for a multi-state program, so we don’t have to have all of these separate programs. Instead we can have one big master irrigator program, where everyone can take a piece of it and make it their own to fit the local area.”

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The point of the program is that using less groundwater doesn’t necessarily mean lower yields or lower profits, it’s more a matter of understanding the tools available and knowing how to use them, she said.

For now, the Republican Basin master irrigator program remains on-hold, pending the resolution of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It will most likely resume next winter. In the interim, Baquera is planning to arrange informational programming so producers will have more tools heading into what is likely to be a challenging growing season.

“We are predicted to have another hot, dry summer, and anything we can do to help share really good information for working through the drought, we want to do that,” she said.