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The role of companies and innovation in efficient irrigation management in Catalonia

  • The role of companies and innovation in efficient irrigation management in Catalonia
  • The Mediterranean climate in Catalonia, with a highly irregular precipitation pattern, does not favour the development of a stable, continuous and productive agriculture.
  • In this context, the certainty that irrigation provides in terms of water availability for agricultural holdings has been a traditional ambition of farmers.​
  • Hence, specialised companies become strategic allies when it comes to technical and management tools, essential for effective farm management.

About the entity

Aqualia is the water management company owned by the citizen services group FCC (51%) and by the Australian ethical fund IFM Investors (49%). Aqualia is Europe's fourth largest private water company in terms of population served.

In the past few years important surface water regulation and conveyance projects have been undertaken, so currently in Catalonia there is an important network of water regulation, conveyance and distribution infrastructure for the irrigation of some 260,000 hectares.

In most irrigated areas, farmers are organised into irrigation associations, who in turn have water rights under a concession issued by the Catalan Water Agency or the Ebro River Basin Authority, depending on whether they are located in the Ebro basin or in basins entirely within Catalonia.

Irrigation associations are public law associations responsible for intensive water use for agricultural purposes. Aside from acting as a contact with state entities and public authorities, they have a role providing farmers the tools and incentives for efficient and sustainable resource use.

Water management is recognised as a critical issue into the future. Irrigation associations have an active role in water management, in order to achieve efficient and integrated management of water resources. In this regard, land use planning, management of water allocations, the participation of the end user, use regulations, control of consumption and technology transfer are some of the issues where irrigation associations have a lot to say.

Information and communication technologies become especially relevant when it comes to managing large irrigated areas

The needs of irrigation associations

Sustainable water management requires the participation of all actors involved, but it also needs technical and management tools, specific for that endeavour. Agricultural water use is no exception, and is at that point that specialised companies such as Aqualia become strategic allies in everything related to technical and management tools, essential for effective irrigation management.

Maintenance and management of irrigation systems is a specific service that involves variable tasks depending on the season. At the same time, there are certain characteristics, such as the fact that the facilities are scattered across a large geographical area, the diversity of elements and equipment to maintain, or the bigger workload during the irrigation season.

The irrigation season entails a period of intense work in the field. It is at that time when the farmer him or herself informs about a significant number of incidents or breakdowns in the system. It is necessary to keep in mind that a large portion of the maintenance personnel is scattered and lives in rural locations in the surroundings of irrigated areas. In addition, access and transit in these areas is not always easy. Therefore, information and communication technologies (ICTs) become specially relevant when it comes to managing large irrigated areas.

Advantages of remote control

Aqualia, as the company responsible for the maintenance and exploitation of irrigated areas, has installed remote control systems in the filtering stations of the Garrigues Sud (province of Lleida) and Menredons (province of Tarragona) irrigation associations, which add up to existing remote control systems in other facilities such as pumps and hydrants. The main advantages of remote controlling and monitoring those stations are controlling and recording how filtering operates, and immediate detection of any alarms through a warning message sent to the mobile phone of the staff person on call. Thanks to those systems it is possible, for example, to detect failures in the facilities, pipeline breaks, low pressure or voltage, or the use of excess flows per day. In addition, the number of inspection visits by technical staff is reduced.

Next we show a graph from a filtering station in Garrigues Sud, where this system has been implemented. In the next image we can clearly see how the filtering station is operating, the pressure differential that activates the filter washing process and the water volume used every time it happens. At the same time, we can appreciate at what time of the day the frequency of washing increases, something that occurs when consumption increases.

Aqualia has a team of technicians specialised in the installation and programming of remote control systems in filtering stations. Moreover, the system also features the possibility of remote programming, to configure alarms and the pressure differential that activates the filter washing process.

The versatility of a geographic information mobile terminal

The managers of an irrigation system have to manage a large amount of information to organise properly maintenance activities and transmit information fast and in a flexible way to the technical services of the association.

At the same time, field operators should have information about the irrigation system and the exact location of the elements that comprise it. The expanse and the geographical spread occupied by irrigated land usually makes it difficult to locate each of the hydrants in the land parcel, as well as elements such as section valves, pressure regulators, etc.

The system planned includes, in a mobile terminal with GPS, the digitalisation of networks and all system elements on a map, so the operator knows at any time the exact location of those elements that make up the irrigation system.
The software used in the terminals is a Geographic Information System (GIS) designed to provide solutions to the needs related to geographical information management. It is a complete solution, easy to use and which can adapt to the needs of any GIS user.

It is possible to access the most common formats, both vector and raster, local and remote. It integrates Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) standards, and has a broad number of tools to work with geographical information (queries, map creation, geoprocessing, networks, etc.), which make it an ideal tool for users that work with a land component.

Field operators should have information about the irrigation system and the exact location of the elements that comprise it

The digitalisation of the irrigation network and inclusion of a mobile system with GPS results in better quality information about networks, starting with the compilation of data from the different irrigation stages; it enables and facilitates updates, increases the accessibility of this information to different parties involved in the operation (authorities, constructors, other public services, etc.) and simplifies the dissemination and filing of mapping information on the network.

The following image shows a screen capture of the computer application where you can edit the maps together with orthophotos of the irrigation areas in Garrigues Sud, where Aqualia has implemented this application.

Maps always available

It is a CompeGPS Land version adapted to mobile devices which supports maps generated by CompeGPS Land and can make use of the GPS for geolocation in a map.

Among the functions it features is layer management, queries of information about diameters, nominal pressure in pipelines, path to a fixed waypoint (hydrant or network element), or creation of GPS tracklogs and waypoints.

The following image shows a screen capture of a mobile terminal with the TwoNav application with the maps of an irrigation association where Aqualia has implemented the application.

APP to manage work orders

One of the premises that Aqualia contemplates in the management of irrigation networks and infrastructure in large agricultural areas is time optimisation.

It entails responding quickly to any incident, so the key is to reduce the reaction time and facilitate real-time access to all information for all agents involved in infrastructure and water resource management related to the operation and maintenance of large irrigated areas.

Accordingly, earlier this year Aqualia implemented a computer application in Garrigues Sud. The tool, accessible to operators and to technical managers and directors from the irrigation associations through mobile phones and tablets enables managing the different work orders, incidents and information of interest to the management team.

With the implementation of the AQUAREG APP the number of trips by field staff and technicians is minimised. Furthermore, the technology reduces printed information, a format that often hinders communication and decreases the capacity to respond, in order to, once again, increase efficiency and reduce the use of paper, an issue that aligns with Aqualia's environmental concerns.

The AQUAREG APP is available at the Android PlayStore and can be installed in accredited mobile devices using that operating system. The application obtains automatically the data from areas, users, hydrants, etc. from the website, and can work regardless of whether it has internet access. If there is no access to the internet, the application remains on standby to update and download the data. The application also features graphs of the status of any actions (yet to be assigned, yet to be started, ongoing, and completed), lists of actions and tasks by each member of staff.

Ultimately, in a moment such as the current one, where efficiency is paramount, it is essential to use new technologies to manage according to professionalism, safety and accountability criteria, and to respond to future sustainability and efficiency challenges demanded by current society. This is even more necessary in terms of water use for agricultural purposes, where we are experiencing ever more frequent periods of resource scarcity that require optimising time and resources.

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