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The complex nature of a simple science

March 27, 2012

Day #1 of CIMMYT Visitors Week, Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico

One wall is dominated by a map of the Yaqui Valley, speckled with LED dots and flanked by computer projections. Two metre high maps of the region cover the side and back walls. In the middle of the room is one small desk, manned by one single technician. This is the control room of the Yaqui Valley District Irrigation System.

In 1992, the Mexican Government transferred management of the region’s irrigation channels to the farmers and their unions. The irrigation system is now controlled at this station, and consists of over 200 wells and three dams, providing water for 220,000 hectares of irrigated farmland.

The aquifer of the Yaqui Valley contains 600 million cubic metres, and is one of the few unexploited aquifers in Mexico. The irrigation station has permission to use the water, but they must also replace the supply. However, the severe droughts of 2003-2004 showed the organization that they could not only rely on their natural water supplies; when the dams almost ran dry they realised that they needed to format a plan to combat these dry periods. The existing computer system is the result of this forward thinking; the wells can be turned on or off from anywhere in the world using the organization’s wifi system,monitoring systems instantly send out alerts if a problem arises, and on-site cameras allow both monitoring of water releases and act as a security measure.

Generally, the water used for irrigation is 80% from the dams and 20% from the wells. Once a month, the organization’s laboratory tests the well water for salinity levels, so that the percentages of each type of source water can be adjusted to create the ideal water nutrient levels for agriculture. When the district received control of the system, 20,000 hectares of the land had salinity problems, but they have now managed to reduce this to just 4,000 hectares through a process they call “washing” the land.

But the irrigation station is not resting on its laurels. The Yaqui Valley produces 80% of Mexico’s wheat, and 74% of the Yaqui Valley’s crop is wheat. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that a mural declaring “The future is in our hands” is the first thing you see when you enter the station.