Water Seed Grant Initiative webinar summarizes project progress

In 2020, seven multidisciplinary teams were chosen as recipients of the fiscal year 2020-2021 Water Seed Grant Initiative, “Research, Engineering and Extension: Creation and Deployment of Water-Use Efficient Technology Platforms.” The teams were selected by Texas A&M AgriLife ResearchTexas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES).

Through the initiative, the three Texas A&M University System agencies have provided $1,136,627 in funding for the grants for 20 months across fiscal years 2020 and 2021, administered by Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI).

The projects focus on research, development and deployment of innovative technologies and management approaches to improve the use and increase the value of water to support agricultural and municipal communities across Texas.

The purpose of this initiative is to provide resource investments to assist in developing long-term relationships with water management agencies and seed larger project efforts that address high-priority water availability and security issues for Texas.

The teams, which included investigators from all three agencies, were encouraged to use the funds to create new technologies, such as sensor networks, precision irrigation, autonomous systems, information management systems and other computational methods and tools.

On August 23, 2021, the principal investigator from each of the seven teams provided a presentation update on the progress of their work virtually during the Water Seed Grant webinar event.

Native Texas Ornamentals for Municipal Water Use Efficiency

The project Native Texas Ornamentals for Municipal Water Use Efficiency was led by James P. Muir, Ph.D., principal investigator, with Amibika Chandra, Ph.D., Ben Wherley, Ph.D., and Bill McCutchen, Ph.D., of AgriLife Research; Chrissie Seagars, Ph.D., of AgriLife Extension; and Jorge Alvarado, Ph.D., of TEES.

In his presentation, Muir said their project hypothesis is that native bunch grasses used in an ornamental setting will be less water consuming than the current exotic bunch grasses that are used in municipal settings.

“Our work is focusing on reducing water consumption in ornamentals. We are looking at drought tolerance within those species. The idea is to work with bunch grasses as ornamentals in flower beds that do not need a whole lot of watering compared to shallow-rooted plants.”

Muir said bunch grasses are much deeper rooted than prostrate growing grasses and have lower water requirements. Deeper roots have the advantage of gathering nutrients deeper in the soil.

“All this adds up to lower maintenance in terms of very little mowing, very little weed control,” he said.

The team did their research in three different locations: Stephenville, Dallas and College Station. These locations in Texas offer different climates in terms of rainfall, temperatures and soils, and Muir said these areas allowed the team to have more exposure and interaction with the nursery industry.

Researchers partnered with Texas Native Seeds experts who recommended the two native species the team used in their research: sideoats grama, the state grass of Texas, and little bluestem, which is widely adopted throughout the United States and very adapted to a wide range of soils and climates. The project compared these native plants to exotic grass varieties: fountain grass, feather reed and pheasant tails.

The study was performed in greenhouses, taking into consideration the complication of municipal water restrictions during a drought. In the study, the team watered the plants every 3 days since they were in small pots, fertilized weekly for the first month and biweekly every month following. The watering rate ranged from 12.5-100%. 

Near the end of the trial, the team concluded that visually there was a clear difference in the plants that received 100% water saturation, which ended up being too much, appearing messier, with algae growth on the top of the plants. It was also determined that 12.5% was not enough water causing the plants to dry out too quickly and most of those plants ended up dying. 

Development and Evaluation of a Novel Sensor- and Crop-Model-Based Decision Support Tool for Efficient Irrigation Management

The project Development and Evaluation of a Novel Sensor- and Crop-Model-Based Decision Support Tool for Efficient Irrigation Management was led by Srinivasulu Ale, Ph.D., principal investigator, with Curtis Adams, Ph.D., and Yubing Fan, Ph.D., of AgriLife Research; Emi Kimura, Ph.D., of AgriLife Extension; and Jim Wall, Ph.D., and Keith Biggers, Ph.D., of TEES.

"The overall goal of the project is to develop an inexpensive and easy-to-use mobile app that collects real-time crop information from the user and combines it with historic and forecasted future weather data to generate efficient and situationally relevant irrigation schedules and estimate associated economic outcomes so that producers can choose a strategy that best fits their well capacities and yield economic goals," Ale said.

The app that the team is developing is called irrigation decision support for conserving resources and optimizing production, or IDcrop.

According to Ale, the app will collect field-specific information from the user, automatically download both historic and future climate weather data and then input that data into the crop model.

"We have two approaches for irrigation scheduling: one is solely based on crop-model-based irrigation scheduling and the other one is crop-model- and sensor-based irrigation scheduling," he said.

The app will have basic and advanced features, be available on iOS or Android mobile devices, and enable both online and offline usage.

The project focuses on the Texas Rolling Plains region, which provides about 13% of Texas cotton on about 900,000 acres.

"Many producers rely on groundwater from the Seymour Aquifer for irrigation in this region. Recently, the cotton acreages have been declining drastically due to reduced well capacities, irregular rain events and frequent occurrence of drought," Ale said. "The adoption of innovative strategies is critical for sustaining cotton production in this region."

Gradient Nanostructure-Enabled High-Performance and Energy-Efficient Water Purification

The project Gradient Nanostructure-Enabled High-Performance and Energy-Efficient Water Purification was led by Shiren Wang, Ph.D., principal investigator, with Hong Liang, Ph.D., of TEES, Anish Jantrania, Ph.D., of AgriLife Extension, and M. Girisha Ganjegunte, Ph.D., of AgriLife Research.

"The goal of our project is to develop energy-efficient and cost-effective desalination technology for overcoming the water challenge," Wang said. "The objective is to design a new class of gradient reverse osmosis membrane to desalinate saline water with high water flux, high salt rejection and low energy consumption."

After proving the design concept and showing the membrane’s performance, Wang said the team plans to partner with El Paso Water to evaluate the water desalination performance and assess the cost and energy consumption.

According to Wang, the most impressive outcome for the project is reduced energy consumption in water desalination with a 15% energy savings to desalinate seawater and a 12% energy savings to desalinate brackish water.

An important reason for this project is the significant increase in the Texas population over the next 50 years.

"We all know for Texas the population keeps increasing every year, and by 2070, there is a shortage of about 8.9 million acre-feet of water based on existing supplies," Wang said. "What we can do is use this new technology to purify brackish water and solve the water gap with lower energy consumption and high yield."

Wang said the team is hoping to move from lab testing to field testing.

"The big challenge will be a larger sized membrane. Currently, we are trying to design a small-scale model for a field test in the El Paso Water Plant," he said.

Integrated Variable Rate Chemigation for Pressurized Irrigation Systems

The project Integrated Variable Rate Chemigation for Pressurized Irrigation Systems was led by Dana Porter, Ph.D., principal investigator, of AgriLife Extension, with Thomas Marek of AgriLife Research and Jiang Hu, Ph.D., of TEES.

According to Porter, chemigation is the application of agricultural chemicals in irrigation, and fertigation is the application of fertilizers through irrigation.

"Advanced irrigation application and control technology are increasingly developed, available and adopted. Producers have a lot more opportunities to adopt these technologies, but while the variable rate irrigation and the automation tools are gaining popularity in irrigation, the automation in variable rate chemigation application technologies are lagging behind the irrigation technologies,” Porter said.

She said the project team has previously developed advanced irrigation controllers for center pivot irrigation systems and fixed zone irrigation systems, including macro irrigation systems.

"We are building upon our previous and ongoing work, adding to our smart irrigation technologies to add the smart variable rate chemigation capabilities," she said.

The overall objective supports the priority area to increase the value of water use to produce agricultural food and fiber crops.

"We’re doing this by increasing nutrient use efficiency, reducing the overall chemical applications, reducing the amount of water needed to apply these chemical applications, as well as reducing the risk of contamination of water resources,” she said.

Porter said the variable rate chemigation system is compatible with widely used, commercially available irrigation and chemigation equipment.

"So the center pivot systems, the micro irrigation systems that are out there in the field right now, this system should be able to plug right into those. That’s the idea. And we did that with our smart irrigation system as well," she said. "It is platform-independent to work with different manufacturers."

By optimizing the application of the actual chemicals, Porter said the team’s goal is to be able to have very precise spot-treatment capabilities in the field.

"Overall, we can reduce the number of chemicals and fertilizers needed or the amounts needed. We can reduce the water that’s needed to apply those chemicals, reducing off-target or excess chemical applications," she said. "So we reduce the contamination of our resources and drift complaints, reduce crop losses and ultimately increase the value of the water and the chemicals that we are applying."

Development of a Camera-Interfaced Autonomous Smart Irrigation System

The project Development of a Camera-Interfaced Autonomous Smart Irrigation System was led by Jorge Alvarado, Ph.D., principal investigator, with Jean-Francois Chamberland, Ph.D., of TEES, Rebecca Grubbs-Bowling, Ph.D., of AgriLife Extension, and Ben Wherley, Ph.D., of AgriLife Research.

Alvarado said the objective of the project was to visually determine water needs by developing a camera-interfaced autonomous smart irrigation system.

"We developed a hardware system to capture thousands of images under different conditions. We also developed an artificial intelligence machinery algorithm capable of estimating water needs based on images," he said.

The idea behind the project was to take images from the field and, based on historical data, determine how much water was needed. To know how much water is needed, the team used a device to measure volumetric water content in the soil.

"Since everything is software-based, this can be easily interfaced with any irrigation controller," Alvarado said. "That could lead to significant water savings in the future.”

To use the technology at other locations, it would require some on-site training for the machine learning algorithm to be customized for the application.

"I think our approach is very solid," he said.

"It’s just a matter of collecting data in the field and correlating the images to the volumetric water content data. I think our algorithm is quite powerful since it can get efficiencies as high as 90%, so we think our algorithm has a lot of potential."

A Photocatalytic Process for the Continuous, Large-Scale Treatment of Turbid Water

The project A Photocatalytic Process for the Continuous, Large-Scale Treatment of Turbid Water was led by principal investigator Sreeram Vaddiraju, Ph.D., of TEES, with Terry Gentry, Ph.D., of AgriLife Research, and Juan Anciso, Ph.D., of AgriLife Extension.

Vaddiraju said the idea behind this project was to come up with a water treatment technology that is complementary to common treatment technologies used today.

"We want to come up with a complimentary technology, which would not only remove bacteria from water but also emerging contaminants, like PFAS for example, or fertilizers and pesticides,” Vaddiraju said.

The photocatalysis process can not only be used in agriculture, for reuse water by small-scale producers, but it could also be used by oil and gas companies to clean fracking water.

In this project, Vaddiraju's team studied how to disinfect water using ultraviolet (UV)-assisted photocatalysis by adding a catalyst to contaminated water and then exciting the catalyst with UV light, which can oxidize the pollutants or inactivate bacteria.

Vaddiraju said the main questions are: Can you do photocatalysis on a large scale and achieve the same effects as we would on a smaller scale? And how do we actually recover catalysts?

"If you’re thinking about using photocatalysis to clean one million gallons of water, you will use tons of this catalyst. If it is a one-time use catalyst, we are going to create a landfill problem again, so we wanted to see if there is a way to recover the photocatalyst and then reuse it," he said.

The team's last goal was inspired by chlorine's ability to be a residual disinfectant, meaning that the chlorine keeps the water disinfected for a longer period of time after the usage of chlorine has stopped.

Vaddiraju's team wanted to see if water treated with the photocatalysis process can be stored over a long period of time without becoming contaminated. After five days, the team found that UV exposure alone was not enough to completely inactivate bacteria, but UV exposure in the presence of a catalyst, or photocatalysis, was successful in keeping the water disinfected.

The team’s future plans include studying other catalyst materials and increasing the speed of the disinfection process.

Creation of an AI-powered Next Generation Home Irrigation Controller

The project Creation of an AI-powered Next Generation Home Irrigation Controller was led by Charles Swanson, principal investigator, with Guy Fipps, Ph.D., of AgriLife Extension, Srinivasulu Ale, Ph.D., of AgriLife Research, and Radu Stoleru, Ph.D., of TEES.

According to Swanson, landscape irrigation accounts for a large amount of municipal water use, especially during the summer when estimates show between 40-60% of municipal water use is used outdoors.

"We find that homeowners often do not know how much water their landscape needs, and they typically employ a 'set it and forget it' philosophy when it comes to watering their yard. They’ll program their controller, and their controller will continuously apply that water on a fixed schedule until you tell the controller not to," Swanson said.

This causes many residents to waste a lot of water by operating the irrigation system at the wrong times of the year or applying too much water when it is not needed.

"Our goals with this project were to develop an improved, stand-alone smart irrigation controller, and in the process of doing that, it would incorporate the internet for remote communications and control, utilize the existing scheduling methodology in the WaterMyYard program by using the same evapotranspiration, rainfall from the rain gauges across the service areas, and it would also incorporate artificial intelligence to incorporate advance features," he said.

To summarize, Swanson said the team has developed the irrigation controller, or hardware, and the software. The controller is integrated with the current WaterMyYard website while the software was developed in the form of an app, available on iOS or Android devices, that allows the user to control the irrigation controller or voice control using Alexa.

Overall, the team’s goal with the WaterMyYard implementation of the program is to increase the water management efficiency of urban landscape irrigation systems.

"If we can do this, then we’ll conserve municipal water resources for future needs," Swanson said.


These projects are only a few examples that the three agencies are working on to advance water management in Texas.


As a communications specialist for TWRI, Sarah Richardson works with the institute's communications team leading graphic design projects including TWRI News, flyers, brochures, reports, documents and other educational materials. 

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