Fluid innovators

Three local companies think big when it comes to water use and conservation

Two technicians use the RemoteTracker to measure water flow diverted through a junction box into a North State agriculture field.

Two technicians use the RemoteTracker to measure water flow diverted through a junction box into a North State agriculture field.

Photo courtesy of H2oTech

Great ideas often gel inside garages. Hewlett-Packard immortalized the garage used by its founders. Apple Computer also started in one, and Steve Jobs ultimately created products consumers didn’t realize they needed, like iPhones, and hit targets no one else could see.

Today, in drought-stricken California, we could use some great new ideas. In order to manage and conserve our dwindling precious resource, we need to innovate for maximum efficiency, and there are some industrious tinkerers who made great progress of late in helping conserve water in the state. So, what happened when a meteorologist, an engineer and a brewer walked into their prospective garages? They innovated.

Rob Doornbos, founder of Weather Tools LLC, relocated from Colorado last year to help run the family rice farm south of Chico. A meteorologist, Doornbos just recently caught the entrepreneurial bug. “I recognized I could pursue what I love and help those I care about,” he said.

His product idea—GroWN (Growers Weather Network), a specialized weather-forecasting application for farmers—germinated several years ago. He established his company in 2012, researched countless hours, and formally launched GroWN in late 2013. Doornbos installed his first stations earlier this year.

“I knew another dry year would affect agricultural costs and productivity,” Doornbos said. “I wanted to create a service that helps growers optimize crop production and resource management. The GroWN station networks give farmers meteorological guidance, whether they plant row crops, tree crops or rice.”

Every 15 minutes, GroWN stations report air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction and rainfall to help growers make real-time decisions regarding the application of water, fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

“If a three-day forecast calls for hot, dry, north winds, a grower may decide to irrigate sooner than later, to minimize evaporation and maximize water penetration into the root zone,” Doornbos said. “Crop dusters also use the observations to optimize their flying schedules, save fuel, and to enhance and maintain safety.”

He built the original GroWN units in his garage and, since January, has deployed 15 solar-powered stations throughout the northern Sacramento Valley.

“These data empower our forecasts,” Doornbos said. “More accurate forecasts give growers confidence to make in-field decisions, which leads to more proactive management decisions, including the application of water.”

During a drought, knowing exactly how much water you do—or don’t—have is critical. Jeff Davids is a water-resources engineer whose specialty is measuring agricultural surface-water deliveries. He founded Chico-based H2oTech in 2006 after discovering that many water agencies built their infrastructure decades ago and still rely on field crews to measure deliveries. By the time California lawmakers passed the Water Conservation Act in 2009, Davids was already in the beginning stages of creating his innovative water-measuring product, the RemoteTracker.

“Estimating water flows without instruments is subjective. One guy may [estimate] 10 acre-feet and another guy, 8,” he said. “The RemoteTracker system reduces human error and eliminates guesswork.”

The RemoteTracker is a handheld wireless flow-measurement system. Acoustic Doppler sensors, integrated with Bluetooth and GPS, measure flows at canal turnouts—like municipal water mains that distribute water to smaller “laterals,” which serve individual fields. At each turnout, water is diverted through concrete junction boxes, or weir boxes. Using the RemoteTracker, volumetric flow data are then transmitted to a database in real time, which allows water agencies—and growers—to improve their water-use accounting.

Consider the Richvale Main Canal, located west of Highway 99, which ultimately serves 20,000 acres of rice. Water is diverted through hundreds of turnouts into smaller laterals and ultimately into fields ranging in size from 30 to 300 acres.

Davids currently works with several Sacramento Valley water agencies to implement the RemoteTracker system, which now serves more than 100,000 acres of farmland.

Were his prototypes built in a garage? Davids chuckled, “I had a carport.”

While young companies Weather Tools and H2oTech are just getting off the ground in their efforts to help improve water-use efficiency, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has long been in the spotlight, receiving much acclaim for its efforts in sustainability. However, few know the intricate details of Sierra Nevada’s efforts to measure and curb water usage, a topic of particular interest during a drought year.

“Our source water includes municipal wells that serve the city of Chico,” explained Cheri Chastain, sustainability manager for Sierra Nevada. “We also operate our own wells to irrigate on-site hop fields. We can’t make beer without water.”

Sierra Nevada was started as a microbrewery in 1980 by Ken Grossman—yep, in his garage—and has grown to the second-largest craft brewer and seventh largest overall brewer in the country. Sierra Nevada consistently receives national acclaim for implementing sustainability technologies—on-site facilities recover biogas and also produce energy from solar arrays and hydrogen fuel cells.

Sierra Nevada has treated its on-site wastewater since 2002. “But that water isn’t for making beer,” Chastain clarified.

Since then, the brewery also has installed flow meters throughout the facility to measure water usage by the restaurant, packaging, the two brewhouses, and fields. “Our management established a water-conservation task force to investigate potential process changes and improvements,” Chastain said.

“We track water quantity, use and quality, system-wide,” she added. “We know how much we need to make a barrel [31 gallons] of packaged beer. Larger breweries, with greater economies of scale, can get down to 3 or 3.5 barrels of water per barrel of packaged beer. Craft breweries typically land in the 4 to 6 range. We’re just above our target of 4 now but strive to become more efficient.”