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News Release

Robert Pence of Coachella Valley Honored for Innovating Effective Low-tech Water Saving Methods for Latino Farmers

Anita Brown (530) 792-5644
Raul Alvarado (760) 347-3675, ex. 104

Honor bestowed at annual California Association of Resource Conservation Districts’ conference

DAVIS, Calif., Nov. 16, 2017—Dr. Robert Pence, UC Davis professor and friend to Coachella Valley farmers, was posthumously honored for innovating the Root-Water project to help Latino farmers save irrigation water. The award was presented this week during the 72nd annual California Association of Resource Conservation Districts’ (CARCD) conference in Sacramento, Calif.

In 2015 Pence recruited 13 farmer volunteers to pilot what he called his “Root-Water project.” Pence’s methods relied on low-tech irrigation tools, paired with weekly visits from Spanish-speaking PhD student, Miguel Garcia, who provided oversight and monitoring. At the end of the year, the farmers had saved an average of 35 percent of the irrigation water relative to their historical use. CVRCD and NRCS intend to continue the program, despite the tragic loss of Dr. Pence earlier this year.

“Bob was a good man with a good heart who had the good sense to realize that in some situations a $75 tensiometer can save more irrigation water than a $3000 computerized system,” said Yvonne Franco, District Manager with Coachella Valley Resource Conservation District (CVRCD). Raul Alvarado, NRCS district conservationist in Coachella Valley explains that tensiometers reflect soil moisture by measuring how hard a root needs to “pull” to get water. “For most of the farmers Pence was working with, the more high-tech devices were simply financially and technically unrealistic. But the tensiometer and the regular visits by Miguel, helped them understand their irrigation options, make good choices, and control their results,” said Alvarado.

The tensiometers and the assistance by Garcia was funded through a cooperative agreement between the CVRCD and the NRCS.

Pence first worked with farmers in the Coachella Valley in the 1990s, becoming familiar with the Valley’s people and practices and the challenges of irrigating crops in the arid region.  After receiving his PhD Pence returned to the Coachella Valley as the district manager of the CVRCD. He recognized that a significant percent of Latino Valley farmers were located on the more challenging Class 3 and Class 4 soils, and faced wind, high porosity, poor water retention, and problems with salinity and sodicity. These issues combined with high pumping costs make effective irrigation water management critical to the farmers’ success.   Previous efforts by CVRCD and NRCS to work with Latino farmers had run into obstacles with cost and compliance.

“Dr. Pence’s willingness and tenacity in developing an irrigation strategy tailored to the unique needs and soils of Latino farmers in Coachella Valley drew on both his technical and human understanding of obstacles and how to overcome them,” said NRCS Acting State Conservationist Curtis Tarver.   “Dr. Pence realized that good technical information often needs a human touch too—and with the help of Miguel, the RCD and NRCS, existing obstacles can be successfully overcome.”