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UCCE San Diego advisor educates growers on complex water regulations

‘Ag Order' for San Diego County expected to be enforced by end of 2023

Gerardo "Gerry" Spinelli looks for symptomatic agave plants at Altman Plants Nursery in Vista. Photo by Saoimanu Sope.

Generally known for its steady warmth and picturesque beaches, San Diego County is also home to nearly 5,000 small farms and is an economic hotspot for nurseries and floriculture. But the great diversity of ornamental crops that dominate the growing region and complexity of regulations make compliance challenging for growers, some of whom grow over 400 crop varieties.

“The regulatory environment for the growers is still complicated and overwhelming because, along with the Regional Water Board, growers are regulated by the County of San Diego,” said Gerardo “Gerry” Spinelli, University of California Cooperative Extension production horticulture advisor for San Diego County.

To help growers with compliance, Spinelli is prioritizing education and expanding growers' knowledge. By partnering with organizations such as the Farm Bureau of San Diego County and the San Diego Region Irrigated Lands Group, Spinelli works to reach more than 1,200 growers, supporting them as they navigate regulatory agencies.

Formally referred to as the Regional Water Quality Control Boards, the Regional Water Board aims to develop and enforce water quality objectives and implement plans to protect the beneficial uses of California's waters.

Members of the Sunlet Nursery pose with Johanna Del Castillo Munera, Assistant Professor of Cooperative Extension at UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology, and Spinelli. Photo by Gerry Spinelli.

A unique place to grow in California 

About 10 years ago, the Regional Water Board created the Agricultural Order (Ag Order), a set of rules outlining how growers manage water discharge from agricultural operations.

The new Ag Order for San Diego County, expected to be enforced by the end of 2023, will focus on nitrogen management and groundwater quality. However, new considerations are needed to address the variety of crops grown by a single farmer, a common practice in San Diego.

Calculating nitrogen input and output for more than 400 crop varieties is not feasible for small farmers, a challenge exacerbated by the meticulous attention needed for San Diego's high-end specialty crops like ornamentals, native plants and specialty fruit.

Furthermore, many San Diego growers have limited expertise and experience because they are entering agriculture as a second or third career. Many have become “accidental growers” in that they purchased land with a preexisting avocado or cherimoya grove, for example.

To help address these challenges, the grower community is emphasizing the need for more educational opportunities that are accessible and relatable. 

Members from regulatory agencies tour Olive Hill Greenhouse in Fallbrook hosted by the San Diego Region Irrigated Lands Group. Photo by Saoimanu Sope.

Equipping growers through education

Enrico Ferro, president of the San Diego Region Irrigated Lands Group – a third-party entity that manages water sample testing on behalf of growers – has relied on Spinelli's teaching to “bridge the gap” for growers, including himself.  

“Gerry has been great because he has expertise in nurseries, but the educational content he creates is relevant to all growers,” said Ferro, who is an avocado and citrus grower in San Diego's North County.

Spinelli, who specializes in containerized production in nurseries and floriculture, has been instrumental in providing technical assistance to growers since he joined Cooperative Extension in 2020.

“I started teaching over Zoom since I became an advisor during the pandemic, and I try to cover different topics for each training,” Spinelli said, adding that he teaches in English and Spanish, making his content more accessible to the grower community in San Diego.

For in-person educational opportunities, Spinelli created the “Last Wednesday” monthly meetings hosted at the Farm Bureau of San Diego County, which brings together growers and other agricultural experts to learn from one another. 

“We try to get our information out in creative ways and Gerry is instrumental in that. He's our primary source of really wonderful information delivered in an engaging way,” said Tasha Ardalan, program coordinator for the SDRILG. “He's proactive and is always willing to try new things, too.”

Spinelli with Javier Lopez, head grower at Altman Plants in Fallbrook. Photo by Gerry Spinelli.

Planning for San Diego's agricultural future 

Currently, the Ag Order is modeled around regulations for the Central Valley. As conversations and planning for San Diego County continue, Spinelli is supporting the Regional Water Board with information on nurseries and greenhouses in hopes that the final Ag Order will better serve San Diego growers. 

“I'm trying to help others understand how nursery and greenhouse production systems function, and how and why they are different from an almond orchard or tomato field in Fresno,” explained Spinelli.

Michael Mellano, CEO of Mellano & Company, a fresh cut flower grower and distributor in Oceanside, feels the impact of the Ag Order and its failure to account for variability. Growing over 100 varieties of flowers, Mellano said that for several plants there is little scientific research on how much nitrate to apply.

“Farmers want to do a good job. We make mistakes and we try to fix them as quickly as we can, and we try to educate others on what works,” said Mellano, who is also a member of the SDRILG. 

Growers like Mellano and Ferro agree that the farming community in San Diego needs to be given the latitude to solve problems within their means, an ability that requires an understanding of San Diego's uniqueness.

“San Diego is significantly different, and we need an Ag Order that is reflective of our differences,” said Valerie Mellano, SDRILG consultant and former UCCE environmental issues farm advisor. “In developing the new Ag Order, there's a huge opportunity for education and research, something that we know Gerry can easily do and continue to support us in.”

Thus far, Spinelli's educational content has reached two-thirds of SDRILG's 1,200 members. In addition to the live training sessions, growers can watch videos that cover topics such as evapotranspiration, irrigation distribution uniformity, water quality indicators and more on Spinelli's YouTube channel.

Since the Ag Order requires all growers to complete two hours of water-quality education, the SDRILG has agreed to apply one hour of credit to growers who attend a one-on-one session with Spinelli.

As San Diego's growers continue to leverage educational opportunities – whether it's alongside Spinelli, SDRILG or learning from one another – Spinelli emphasized that their success also relies on an ag order that adheres to a distinctive landscape, multitude of specialty crops and growers with varying expertise.

A variety of tropical ornamental plants grown at Olive Hill Greenhouse in Fallbrook. Photo by Saoimanu Sope.
Posted on Tuesday, August 8, 2023 at 1:19 PM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Environment, Health, Natural Resources

Los Angeles 4-H program cultivates future generation of water stewards

During their tour, the Palos Verdes Peninsula 4-H club members figure out how to build their own water filter using a set of basic materials. All photos by Dee Keese.

Ibrahim Yaaseen, member of the Palos Verdes Peninsula (PVP) 4-H club, grabs a hard hat and places it on top of his head. He then reaches for a bright orange safety vest and goggles to complete his safety gear outfit before joining the rest of his club members who are dressed the same.

The 4-H Youth Development Program of Los Angeles is already thinking about the future of water management and turned to the West Basin Municipal Water District in El Segundo to gain a deeper understanding of the precious resource we often take for granted.

The University of California 4-H Youth Development Program is managed through local Cooperative Extension offices. Through hands-on learning experiences, 4-H empowers youth to reach their full potential and enables them to build self-esteem, connect with their community and emerge as leaders.

Dee Keese, community club leader for the PVP 4-H club, coordinated an exclusive and interactive tour of West Basin's Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility for the club's monthly marine biology meeting in December 2022.

Eager to inspire a stronger appreciation for water, Janel Ancayan, the West Basin's education coordinator, challenged the youth to build their own water filters using materials including fabric, a strainer, and a funnel. Since no specific directions were given, the activity challenged each student's science and engineering skills, such as carrying out an investigation, designing a solution, and communicating information with team members.

During the tour, students saw firsthand the impressive equipment and essential staff members that help to produce nearly 40 million gallons of recycled water each day. At the end of the day, students left with a deeper understanding of water resources and felt empowered to do their part to conserve water sources.

“We learned that recycling water helps to conserve our limited water supply and improves the environmental condition of our coastal waters,” said Yaaseen. “We ultimately learned a great deal about how to conserve water for future generations and that water conservation is one of the most important elements in combating climate change.”

Though Keese has volunteered as community club leader for 48 years, this is only the second time she has partnered with the West Basin. “I like to mix it up,” she said. “I'm always looking for community organizations and local businesses to partner with because these are places that the kids will likely interact with since they're nearby.”

Janel Ancayan guides the 4-H members on their tour, providing important information throughout the day.

Regardless, it's leaders like Keese and programs like 4-H that encourage water stewards like Ancayan. “I'm always so humbled and inspired when teachers make it a point to come out and visit our facility. In Southern California especially, [water] is not something we think about,” Ancayan said. 

Even in a drought, water continues to flow from our faucets allowing us to shower, wash dishes or water the lawn. It's no wonder why water conservation is not always top of mind, especially for consumers. Educating the public, and targeting the younger generation, however, is a great start to prepare for the future.

West Basin offers a variety of educational programs that focus on different age groups. Many of them involve hands-on learning like the Teach and Test volunteer program, a partnership with the Surfrider Foundation, where high school students test samples of coastal water for bacteria, and then publicly share their findings to contribute to water quality monitoring in the area.

According to Yaaseen, the time spent with Ancayan at the West Basin was “one-of-a-kind” and provided a “golden opportunity” to learn why water recycling facilities are important. Ancayan hopes that her time spent with students ultimately influences them to consider a career in water.

“It's not a glamorous job but I'm really passionate about the next generation of water workers,” she said. “I hope that once they see the engineering, the excitement of these scientists that work in our laboratory and everything in between, that they start to think about water as a future career path.”

For those interested in joining 4-H, visit https://4h.ucanr.edu/Members/

 

To read this story in Spanish, please visit: 

Programas 4-H de Los Ángeles forman a la futura generación de administradores de los recursos hídricos

https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=57063

PVP 4-H club members touring the West Basin Municipal Water District's Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo in December 2022.
Posted on Friday, March 3, 2023 at 10:51 AM
Focus Area Tags: 4-H, Economic Development, Environment, Natural Resources

UCCE water management expert helps save water, increase supply in SoCal

 

Former Ph.D. student Amninder Singh collects drone and soil moisture data to evaluate the response of hybrid bermudagrass to different irrigation levels using recycled water and a soil moisture sensor-based smart irrigation controller. The study was conducted at UC ANR South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine.

Earlier this year, officials in Southern California declared a water shortage emergency resulting in restrictions such as limiting outdoor water use to one day of the week. While mandatory restrictions vary across the region, Amir Haghverdi, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and associate professor of agricultural and urban water management at UC Riverside, is using research to pinpoint irrigation strategies that will help communities reduce their demand for water and increase supply.

Haghverdi and his team are responding to a hotter and drier California by working to identify changes that can make a substantial difference in water savings.

While behavioral changes such as preventing leaks and turning the faucet off while brushing teeth can help, Haghverdi's research focuses on methodical changes like stressing green spaces, planting drought-tolerant plant species, using non-traditional water sources, and investing in technology to better control water use.

Testing a lawn's limits

For six years, Haghverdi and his team have performed stress tests on turfgrass to identify the lowest percent of evapotranspiration rate (ETo) that it can withstand and still survive. To do this, Haghverdi's team applies different percentages of ETo, obtained from weather stations, and monitors the performance of each landscape species over time.

While both cool-season and warm-season species can be stressed and still maintain their aesthetic value for a few weeks to several months, Haghverdi's results showed that warm-season turfgrass species require less water and can withstand water stress better.

The actual duration that people can apply less water depends on the type of turfgrass, the weather conditions and the stress level. For example, results showed that hybrid bermudagrass (a warm-season turfgrass) during summer in inland Southern California could keep its aesthetic value above the minimum threshold for 30 to 50 days, depending on the weather conditions, with irrigation application as low as 40% ETo.

In contrast, tall fescue, a cool-season turfgrass, even with 20% more water, showed signs of stress after only a few weeks and could not maintain its minimum acceptable quality.

Plant drought-tolerant species

Haghverdi's work demonstrates that when water conservation is the goal, alternative groundcover species are clearly superior to all turfgrass species and cultivars that they have tested so far. In fact, his team has identified drought-tolerant species that can maintain their aesthetic values with a third to a quarter less water than cool-season turfgrass (as low as 20% ETo) and can even withstand no-irrigation periods.

Furthermore, extensive field trials showed that new plant species from different regions could be as resilient as native species in withstanding drought and heat stress while maintaining their aesthetic beauty and cool canopy. Occasionally, they have outperformed native species, underscoring the advantages of drought- and heat-tolerant species that are non-native.

Based on Haghverdi's preliminary results for minimum irrigation requirement in inland Southern California, creeping Australian saltbush, a non-native species originally from Australia, and coyote bush, native to California, were top performers. Considering cooling benefits, drought tolerance and sensitivity to over-irrigation, creeping Australian saltbush performed the best.

Ph.D. students Anish Sapkota and Jean Claude Iradukunda collect plant physiological data to understand how native and non-native irrigated groundcover species respond to periods of water stress and limited irrigation applications in inland Southern California.

Counties are already using recycled water

Although he recommends renewing your landscape with drought-tolerant or low-water use greenery and identifying how long your green spaces can live without water, Haghverdi acknowledges that, while contradictory, the cooling benefits of landscape irrigation are essential in Southern California.

“This is one of the tradeoffs of water conservation,” said Haghverdi. “If the only goal is to conserve water, maybe people will conclude that we don't have enough water to irrigate landscape.”

Water conservation efforts could influence counties to stop or reduce landscape irrigation. The consequences, however, would result in hotter environments due to the heat island effect. The loss of landscapes means that the sun's energy will be absorbed into the ground, instead of prompting transpiration in plants, which helps keep environments cool.   

Thus, stressing green spaces and investing in drought-tolerant plant species help reduce the demand for water, but increasing water supply is just as vital. Haghverdi urges Southern California counties to prioritize a supplemental water supply such as recycled water – an approach already implemented in Ventura, Orange and San Diego counties.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's Pure Water Southern California Program, formerly known as the Regional Recycled Water Program, aims to do just that. In partnership with the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, the program will further purify wastewater to produce a sustainable source of high-quality water for the region.

According to the program's website, this would “produce up to 150 million gallons of water daily when completed and provide purified water for up to 15 million people, making it one of the largest water reuse programs in the world.”

Smart controllers save time, money and water

Making the best use of the water you already have relies on efficiency. Sprinklers that are poorly placed, for example, are not as effective as they could be.

“What I see often while walking my dog in the neighborhood is that there's a lot of runoff, bad irrigation and bad timing like when it's windy,” Haghverdi observed. “People usually set their irrigation timer and then forget it, but they don't adjust it based on the season or weather parameters. That's not going to help us conserve water, a precious resource, in California.”

Thankfully, Haghverdi and his team have done extensive research on smart irrigation controllers, which, simply put, are irrigation timers with a sensor built in. Generally, there are two types of smart irrigation controllers: weather- and soil-based controllers.

Weather-based controllers use evapotranspiration data to automatically adjust their watering schedule according to local weather conditions. Soil-based controllers measure moisture at the root zone and start irrigating whenever the reading falls below a programmed threshold.

Smart controllers that have flowmeters can detect leaks and be activated automatically, whereas rain sensors can stop irrigation during rainfall. Although both additions are ideal for large irrigation landscapes such as parks and publicly maintained green spaces, rain sensors are easy to install and effective for residential areas too.

When asked about cost being a hindrance, Haghverdi responded, “Not a lot of people know that there are grants for smart controllers – some that will pay either all or a majority of the cost.”

To check if grants are available in your area, interested individuals are encouraged to contact their local water provider.

“We need to move towards autonomous and smart irrigation [strategies], and water management in urban areas. That's the future. If we can build autonomous cars, why can't we build smart water management systems that apply the right amount of water to each plant species, can detect leaks and prevent water waste?” said Haghverdi.

To learn more about or stay updated on Haghverdi's research, visit www.ucrwater.com.

 

Aerial view of two adjacent tall fescue and hybrid bermudagrass irrigation trials conducted at UC Riverside Agricultural Research Statins to develop autonomous turfgrass water conservation strategies using an ET-based smart irrigation controller.
Posted on Monday, November 14, 2022 at 5:27 AM
Tags: Amir Haghverdi (1), change (1), climate (14), conservation (13), drought (171), resistance (2), Riverside (2), southern (1), turfgrass (9), water (84)
Focus Area Tags: Natural Resources, Yard & Garden

Davis Teen: How Those Pesky Mosquitoes Led to a Scientific Publication

Listen to ABC Channel 10 News, broadcast Dec. 22Seventeen-year-old Helena Leal doesn't like mosquitoes, but they like her. “I always get...

Researcher and lead author Helena Leal, 17, a scholar at Davis High School, injects a sample of odorants trapped in a solid phase micro-extraction syringe intothe gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) in the Walter Leal lab at UC Davis. In back  are chemical ecologist Walter Leal (right) and UC Davis student researcher Kaiming Tan. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Researcher and lead author Helena Leal, 17, a scholar at Davis High School, injects a sample of odorants trapped in a solid phase micro-extraction syringe intothe gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) in the Walter Leal lab at UC Davis. In back are chemical ecologist Walter Leal (right) and UC Davis student researcher Kaiming Tan. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Researcher and lead author Helena Leal, 17, a scholar at Davis High School, injects a sample of odorants trapped in a solid phase micro-extraction syringe intothe gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) in the Walter Leal lab at UC Davis. In back are chemical ecologist Walter Leal (right) and UC Davis student researcher Kaiming Tan. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Working on the mosquito cage assay are (from left) researchers Kaiming Tan, a UC Davis student in the Walter Leal lab;  lead author Helena Leal of Davis High School, and UC Davis chemical ecologist Walter Leal. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Working on the mosquito cage assay are (from left) researchers Kaiming Tan, a UC Davis student in the Walter Leal lab; lead author Helena Leal of Davis High School, and UC Davis chemical ecologist Walter Leal. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Working on the mosquito cage assay are (from left) researchers Kaiming Tan, a UC Davis student in the Walter Leal lab; lead author Helena Leal of Davis High School, and UC Davis chemical ecologist Walter Leal. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Looking over mosquito specimens are (from left)  UC Davis chemical ecologist Walter Leal and two members of the research team: daughter Helena Leal, lead author; and UC Davis student Kaiming Tan. Not pictured is UC Davis student researcher Justin K. Hwang. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Looking over mosquito specimens are (from left) UC Davis chemical ecologist Walter Leal and two members of the research team: daughter Helena Leal, lead author; and UC Davis student Kaiming Tan. Not pictured is UC Davis student researcher Justin K. Hwang. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Looking over mosquito specimens are (from left) UC Davis chemical ecologist Walter Leal and two members of the research team: daughter Helena Leal, lead author; and UC Davis student Kaiming Tan. Not pictured is UC Davis student researcher Justin K. Hwang. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Davis High School scholar Helena Leal addresses the crowd at the Mexican-American Yolo County Concilio Scholarship Dinner. At left is keynote speaker Carlos Saucedo of ABC Channel 10.(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Davis High School scholar Helena Leal addresses the crowd at the Mexican-American Yolo County Concilio Scholarship Dinner. At left is keynote speaker Carlos Saucedo of ABC Channel 10.(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Davis High School scholar Helena Leal addresses the crowd at the Mexican-American Yolo County Concilio Scholarship Dinner. At left is keynote speaker Carlos Saucedo of ABC Channel 10.(Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Even without rain, the California Naturalist Program blooms in Southern California

Naturalists at Tejon Ranch Conservancy hike through oak woodland overlooking agricultural fields, two iconic California landscapes.

In the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, people sometimes forget that Southern California actually has a wealth of natural open spaces. From the Mojave desert to four National Forests, Southern California supports vast wilderness spaces, many just a stone's throw from major cities. And if one looks closely, even those urban centers are filled with recreational parks and trails in an attempt to sate our appetite to connect with nature.

Naturalists observe native species and explore the L.A. River during field trips with the USC Sea Grant/SEA Lab CalNat course.
This hungry audience is driving rapid growth of UC Agriculture and Natural ResourcesCalifornia Naturalist Program. Established programs such as those offered by Pasadena City College, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy are being joined by new and developing partners. Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority manages land in both the Santa Monica Mountains and downtown Los Angeles. MRCA incorporated the CalNat curriculum into a longer Bridge to Park Careers workforce training program, resulting in the hiring of a cadre of new rangers well-versed in California natural history.

The University of Southern California Sea Grant program and the LA Conservation Corps SEA Lab teamed up to expose young adults from underserved communities to the coastal ecosystems of Southern California and potential jobs in the environmental field. The Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum brings together California's rich cultural and natural histories in the heart of south Los Angeles County. Additional CalNat programs will soon be popping up in Cambria, Carlsbad, Riverside, Ojai, and Big Bear, and we're working to develop partnerships in San Diego and Orange Counties and along the L.A. River.

The CalNat curriculum highlights the incredible diversity of our state; the California Floristic Province is considered one of the 25 global biodiversity hotspots. This designation means that the region is home to a huge number of endemic species (those found nowhere else), but also that it shows an alarmingly high degree of habitat loss. Our mild Mediterranean climate and varying topography contribute to a diversity of species, but these are also attractive features to humans.

The 10 counties that define Southern California cover only a third of the state geographically, but they hold nearly two-thirds of the population, more than 22 million people. What an amazing pool of potential naturalists! And in neat symmetry with our diversity in geology and biology, perhaps no place in California exemplifies demographic diversity like Los Angeles. As our program expands, especially in the southern part of the state, CalNat is placing great emphasis on bringing our approach of “stewardship through discovery and action” to participants from a broad range of backgrounds.

A hike to the Hollywood sign lends a far-off view of downtown beyond Griffith Park.
But interpreting nature in Southern California holds unique challenges. In this arid land, agriculture and urban residents fight fiercely over scarce water (much of it imported from elsewhere), an even more contentious resource in our current drought conditions. And fire, though common throughout the state, is a particularly prickly topic in a region with so many homes.

Urban ecology is an emerging science built around the complexity of survival pressures and species interactions in human-impacted environments. In Southern California, dense human populations live cheek-by-jowl with coyotes, raccoons, rattlesnakes, bears, and mountain lions, and our habits and infrastructure influence their movements. Human development often fragments natural habitats, creating isolated islands that may not support viable populations of native species and may favor invasions by non-natives. As these environments lose functionality, we lose important “ecosystem services,” such as flood buffering by coastal wetlands.

So it's all the more important that Southern Californians take a greater interest in understanding and shaping our place in the natural world. If we can forge meaningful connections with the natural resources in the places we live, we can learn to protect those resources. This is already starting to happen, with initiatives like L.A.'s Sustainable City pLAn, the new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, and countless Internet blogs about local hiking trails, not to mention plenty of conservation organizations that have operated in Southern California for years and often partner with CalNat to offer courses.

In 2014, nearly 200 California Naturalists from partner organizations throughout the state came together in Asilomar for a conference to appreciate our natural resources and to celebrate each other's efforts in habitat restoration, citizen science, and interpretation. But our CalNat community has grown immensely, and we expect an even greater number to join us for field trips, lectures, trainings, and fun when we convene again in 2016, this time in Southern California. In the meantime, CalNat courses will continue to spring up all over the Southland, so those 22 million people won't have to fight traffic to find a class, and some nature, close to home.

Posted on Wednesday, September 2, 2015 at 9:14 AM
  • Author: Shayna Foreman

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