Water for Food

Smart water meters helping to make smart management decisions

May 30, 2018


Researchers working on water meter

By Molly Nance, director of communications and PR

Ellen Emanuel and Caleb Milliken are DWFI staff and recent UNL graduates – master’s and bachelor’s degrees, respectively – working on a DWFI research project in partnership with Smart Water Metering, a Canadian start-up company. Together, they’re exploring the value of using smart energy meters to help farmers better manage energy and water usage in agriculture, potentially saving costs in addition to conserving water. This spring, Emanuel, Milliken and others began installing the first of 200 custom-developed meters in farm fields across Nebraska and the High Plains region. The meters measure real-time energy and water use for individual irrigation pumps and will eventually provide analysis and benchmarking on water costs and energy efficiency to producers. The pilot design and information provided are based on extensive interviews with producers, as well as ongoing research on irrigation energy use.

“I’ve learned so much!” said Emanuel. “I’ve been interested in food-energy-water nexus research for a while, so I’m excited to be part of a project that incorporates each part of it. This project aligns well with my interests in sustainable energy and water security, and I’ve enjoyed learning more about the agricultural operations that are so important to Nebraska. We’ve had a rollercoaster of a ride with lots of ups and downs in all aspects, which has taught us to be more flexible. Our best laid plans often fall through with weather changes and other unforeseen challenges, while our greatest successes come from short-notice field trips. Overall I’ve really enjoyed being out in the fields and working with my hands. It feels like we’re working to improve water security, one meter at a time.”

Dozens of farmers have agreed to participate in the pilot program, receiving free energy meters and the resulting data and insights they can use to monitor and manage their water inputs. Wyoming farmer Scott Tietmeyer said, “I’m intrigued by what we’ll find with this project. At first I had no interest in this, but after I was challenged I started to think about it and decided to find out.”

“I hope this project helps people better understand the link between their energy costs and water use, and I hope a better understanding will lead to carefully considered water use,” Emanuel explained. “I think the information we gather will supplement other technologies already available, like soil moisture probes, which measure the moisture content of fields. All of this data combined will give producers a wealth of information to consider when they’re making irrigation decisions, and they can better weigh the pros and cons of irrigation for their crops, their total farming operations and their water security throughout the growing season. At least, that’s our goal!” she added.

“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to be in the field, working beside producers and researchers to better understand the nexus of water, energy and food,” said Milliken. “The value of water is something that is hard to identify and understanding the energy cost to pump groundwater is a huge key in appreciating the actual value. I am very excited to look at the data we receive from the meters.

My greatest interest lies with the behavioral question behind this project: will producers change their behavior with a greater understanding of the cost of irrigating their fields? I hope we can coordinate with others in the field to take a look at the necessary data to examine this question!”

Researchers in field working on center pivot


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