The Orellana Canal Irrigation Community (Comunidad de Regantes del Canal de Orellana, CRCO) is a sizable irrigation district in the arid central-western Spanish region of Extremadura. Over the past few years, it has used funds from Spain’s State Society for Agricultural Infrastructure (Sociedad Estatal de Infraestructuras Agrarias, SEIASA) to install new flow meters and automated gates in order to conserve water and increase its efficiency. In this interview, CRCO Technician Adolfo Nieto tells Irrigation Leader about the community’s current challenges and initiatives and provides insight into the situation of Spanish irrigation districts in general.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Adolfo Nieto: I am a topographic technical engineer, and I started my career working on highways in northern Spain. The CRCO, which was planning to do a lot of ditch restoration work, called me to offer me a position. I accepted because I was interested in trying a new type of work. With time I’ve come to enjoy it and have now spent 19 years here. When I started, I worked exclusively as a topographer, but I’ve come to be the community’s technician and am now in charge of everything related to our current projects.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the CRCO.
Adolfo Nieto: The CRCO covers a surface area of 40,442 hectares (99,934 acres) and currently has 4,708 members. The number of members has descended notably in the last few years. When I arrived, there were more than 8,000, but the costs of production have steadily risen with no corresponding rise in the prices at which producers can sell, with the result that if an agricultural producer wants to make a living and remain profitable, they need to constantly expand their land holdings. There has also been a reduction in the number of young people entering agriculture, with the result that agricultural land is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The primary crops in the CRCO are tomatoes, corn, and rice.
Legally, the CRCO is a public law corporation associated with the Guadiana River Hydrographical Confederation, so it should be considered a semipublic agency. We are not directly subordinate to the confederation, but we follow its guidelines, since it is in charge of regulating the Guadiana River and the related reservoirs and provides us with our allotment of water. The money for the CRCO budget comes from the irrigators, who pay an assessment on their irrigated land; the CRCO also periodically solicits project funds from the Extremadura regional government.
The CRCO’s infrastructure consists almost exclusively of canals and ditches. In recent years, its laterals have started to be replaced by buried pipes, though at this point that represents only 10 percent of its total infrastructure.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell our readers about irrigation communities and districts in Spain in general? Are most of a similar size to the CRCO, and do most have the same legal structure?
Adolfo Nieto: This is one of the largest irrigation communities in Spain in terms of its service area. Most are smaller. Other irrigation communities in Spain, like the CRCO, are public law corporations associated with the corresponding river basin confederation.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the recent modernization work the CRCO has carried out. What was the problem you were aiming to resolve?
Adolfo Nieto: The CRCO has undertaken two irrigation improvement plans within the framework of the National Irrigation Plans promoted by SEIASA. The main problem that the CRCO had before the execution of these projects were large water losses, which we have aimed to eliminate by replacing and repairing ditches.
As part of these two projects, we worked on 43 percent of the CRCO’s network, and when you add the actions that the CRCO carried out with its own resources and the projects subsidized by the Extremadura regional government, we have done work on a total of 65 percent of the network.
We have also installed flow measurement and control devices to make our water distribution more efficient. We installed 50 ultrasound flow meters and 27 smart gates manufactured by Rubicon, all of which send data to a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, which manages everything. The smart gates can be controlled remotely from any computer with an internet connection or from a phone.
These actions have allowed us to considerably reduce leaks from our system and to manage our distribution system more efficiently.
Irrigation Leader: What was SEIASA’s role in this project?
Adolfo Nieto: SEIASA was in charge of the two national irrigation improvement plans and acted as the project manager.
Irrigation Leader: What are the CRCO’s other current top issues?
Adolfo Nieto: In March 2019, the CRCO signed a contract with the Guadiana River Hydrographic Confederation that delegated the management of the confederation’s entire system to the CRCO, along with the systems of three other irrigation communities that are supplied by the Orellana Canal. This means that we will now be in charge of maintaining an additional 800 kilometers (km), or about 500 miles, of secondary network in addition to the 1,200 km (746 miles) of tertiary network we already manage. The principal challenge in the short term is to minimize losses in the secondary system and to modernize the network by installing new flow meters and smart gates that will help us in our work, since water is more and more scarce. In fact, this year we are in a prealert stage for drought, despite the fact that we have the largest reserves of freshwater in Spain. It’s worth pointing out that the region of Extremadura has one-third of Spain’s total amount of water stored in reservoirs.
Irrigation Leader: What are the top challenges for irrigators in Spain?
Adolfo Nieto: The most important challenge that Spanish irrigation communities face is clearly water scarcity. Spain is one of the countries in the world that will be most seriously affected by climate change. It is a fact that over the past 50 years, the amount of arid land in our country has increased noticeably, and with that in mind, all the efforts of Spanish irrigation communities must aim at a better management of irrigation water.
Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of the CRCO?
Adolfo Nieto: In my opinion, the CRCO should modernize even more. Right now, we have a gravity system that by its nature results in the loss of a lot of water. The CRCO should work to transform its system into a pressurized system with on-farm meters, using all the tools that new technology offers us to understand the water needs of agriculture. This would help us deliver the necessary amount of water to farms while eliminating waste. The problem now is how to fund it. Pressurizing a system as large as the CRCO’s requires a large investment.