Earth Notes: Watering Fields with the Sun

Jun 18, 2014

The Verde Valley, watered by the Verde River, is named for the ultra-green cast it gives to central Arizona’s desert.

Solar-powered automated headgates on the Verde River.
Credit Courtesy photo

Though the river flows through the heart of the valley, water isn’t abundant. But, there is lots of sunshine. Recognizing that reality, Kim Schonek is helping valley farmers put the sun to work to deliver water more efficiently to fields.

Schonek, Verde River Project Manager for the Nature Conservancy, saw that more water was sometimes being diverted from the river than was actually needed for crops and landscaping. That meant parts of the river went dry, or nearly so—not a good thing for fish, or otters or beavers or birds.

She began working with local irrigation companies to purchase and install solar-powered headgates on ditches. Small photovoltaic units are now on four main ditches around Camp Verde, generating electricity to power a motor that raises and lowers the metal gates on the canals.

The system is automated, so a ditch boss, the overseer of water deliveries, can operate it with a cell phone. “It’s a lot easier to push a button,” says Schonek, “than turn the wheel on a heavy metal gate.“ The system keeps irrigation flows at a constant volume, and assures that the right amount of water is delivered.

Solar-powered headgates aren’t new technology, but applying them for conservation purposes is new, she says. If they work as well as intended, they will help keep the “green” in the Verde.