Addressing the global challenge to conserve irrigation water

4 minute read

A solar powered rural irrigation dam. Photo by Michael Kai

Rubicon Water’s automated irrigation system is saving billions of litres of water each year, helping farms worldwide survive drought and increase crop yields. Total Channel Control® was developed in partnership with the University of Melbourne.

The outcome

A system for automating irrigation is enabling up to 90 per cent of distributed water to reach farms, saving billions of litres of water a year around the world. Total Channel Control® (TCC) was developed by Rubicon Water in partnership with the University of Melbourne.

Rubicon Water is a Melbourne-based manufacturer that improves the efficiency of large-scale, gravity-fed irrigation systems. TCC measures and controls water flow from the water source to the farm in real time. In combination with Rubicon products for on-farm irrigation control, TCC allows farmers to monitor and manage irrigation remotely, delivering precise amounts of water to crops in response to changing conditions.

TCC helps to make irrigated agriculture more productive and sustainable. Farmers who use Rubicon Water’s products have reported that their productivity and general wellbeing have increased, while their working hours have decreased.

The need

Typically, less than 70 per cent of distributed irrigation water reaches farms. In some countries, such as China, water efficiency can be as low as 30 per cent. Water is lost in transit through leakage, seepage, evaporation and measurement errors. As a result, open-channel irrigation systems – most of which rely on outdated infrastructure and manual management – tend to supply excess water to avoid crop loss.

Irrigation accounts for more than 70 per cent of the global demand for fresh water. This water comes primarily from purpose-built reservoirs, which are supplied by rivers.

Pressure on water is increasing, due to climate change, a growing global population and urbanisation. People are also eating more meat, which can take up to 10 times more water to produce per kilogram than grains, fruit and vegetables. To safeguard water resources and ensure food security, irrigation infrastructure needs to be modernised. Improving the efficiency of existing open-channel systems is more cost-effective than installing new water irrigation infrastructure such as pressurised pipelines.

Developing the solution

In 1998, Rubicon Water approached Professor Iven Mareels to ask for help in solving a problem on one of its projects. Professor Mareels is a Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor in the Melbourne School of Engineering. That project was the beginning of a long-term partnership between Rubicon Water and the University of Melbourne. Over more than two decades, the partnership has involved University researchers with expertise in systems engineering, mathematical modelling and control theory.

The research team, led by Professor Mareels, began by modelling how water flows in rivers and channels. They then investigated how to measure and manage water flow accurately.

Based on this work, Rubicon designed TCC, a fully automated system for controlling irrigation.

TCC combines information from solar-powered sensors across the irrigation network. These sensors measure water levels and flow at distinct points in open channels. Based on this data, the system automatically opens and closes gates and valves to control the amount of water that is delivered to the farm. Farmers can also use the data to identify parts of the network that are losing water through leaks, seepage or excess evaporation.

The research team helped trial TCC at the University’s Dookie campus, which includes a working farm. TCC was also trialled in pilot projects in New South Wales and Victoria in 2002. It was introduced to market in 2005. TCC is now used in Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Chile, Mexico, Spain, Italy, France, Canada and the USA.

In California, the Oakdale Irrigation District uses a century-old gravity distribution system to divert 370 gigalitres of water annually to around 3500 farmers and domestic users across a 29 000 hectare area in the San Joaquin Valley. After installing TCC, the district eliminated unintentional water loss, saving up to 16 megalitres of water per day across just one of the upgraded channels. Across the whole system, initial water savings are estimated to be up to 40 gigalitres per year – enough for a city of 500 000 people.

All major irrigation authorities in Australia now use TCC.

Partner

Rubicon Water Ltd

Funding

ARC Linkage Projects (LP0989497), (LP0349134), (LP170100710), (LP130100605) and (LP160100666)

Publications

Cantoni M, Mareels I (2020) Demand-driven automatic control of irrigation channels. In: Baillieul J, Samad T (eds) Encyclopedia of Systems and Control. London, UK: Springer. ISBN: 9781447150596

Cantoni M et al (2007) Control of large-scale irrigation networks. Proceedings of the IEEE 95(1): 75–91. doi: 10.1109/JPROC.2006.887289

Mareels I et al (2005) Systems engineering for irrigation systems: Successes and challenges. Annual Reviews in Control 29(2): 191–204. doi: 10.1016/j.arcontrol.2005.08.001

Patents

AU2008201858 (Control gates), filed 21 August 2001

AU2010201936 (Control gates), filed 21 August 2001

AU2010201935 (Fluid regulation), filed 1 March 2002

AU2011200645 (Control gates – slidable frame), filed 21 August 2001

AU2018317494 (Method and system for water distribution and soil moisture determination), filed 14 August 2018

Image: Michael Kai Photography, supplied by Rubicon Water

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