Grapes (Vitis vinifera), are a potentially profitable agricultural crop alternative to alfalfa. Grapes consume less than one-tenth of the water typically required by alfalfa or grass hay, while also providing a higher estimated net profit per acre.


What is a geographic information system?

More commonly known by its acronym, GIS is a tool used to relate spatial, temporal and tabular data,such as rainfall totals, population statistics or land use, for a common geographic study area.

“GIS is a collection of different types of data that, when georeferenced, provide insight about various phenomena in the area of interest,” says Tim Minor, a geospatial scientist in the Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Desert Research Institute.

The Walker Basin Project, for example, involved the integration of many spatial and tabular data sets related to irrigation delivery systems, the associated streams and rivers, and how topography, geology and vegetation affected water flow. “These are the types of data we integrate to help the surface and groundwater modelers conduct their analyses,” Minor says.

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Two-row malt barley

Two-row malt barley

Two-row malt barley

Two-row malt barley (Hordeum vulgare var. distichum) is an annual cereal grain. It ranks fourth in the world in terms of quantity produced and area of cultivation.
It is grown as a major source of animal feed with smaller amounts used for malting intended for beer and ale production.


Spring mix

Also known as “spring mix,” a number of varieties of baby leaf lettuce (Lactuca sativa) and spinach (Spinacia oleracea) are currently grown in Mason Valley. Spring mix requires one-fourth of the irrigation water per crop compared to alfalfa. However, multiple crops are commonly grown in one season.



TeffTeff (Eragrostis tef), an annual grass native to the northern Ethiopian Highlands, is a promising low-water use crop in the Walker Basin.

Teff is a high protein grain used to make a flat bread called injera and is an alternative for people with wheat (gluten) allergies.


Historical vegetation patterns

Researchers used written descriptions by early explorers, historical photographs and land surveys to reconstruct what the Walker Basin looked like prior to agricultural development.

The Walker Basin

The view depicted in the map looks south across Walker Basin. The image was created using Geographic Information Systems or GIS.

Plant, soil and water interactions

Alfalfa is currently a popular crop in the Walker Basin; alfalfa is also a high water use crop. Research is being conducted on alternatives to alfalfa that are both viable in this climate and profitable for local farmers. However, alternative crops for food production, such as teff, amaranth and pearl millet, as well as crops for biofuels production, will alter the ecosystem.

It is important to understand how new crop types may change soil properties over time. Alternative crops, for example, may change carbon and nitrogen cycling in the soils, which are important components of soil fertility. Therefore, scientists are interested in how changes in water use, water table depth and soil salinity would affect both soils and vegetation.

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Alternative agriculture for water conservation in the Walker Basin

In the West, the demand for limited water resources often exceeds availability. Because agricultural water use is a significant portion of all water used, the search for water savings is commonly directed towards irrigated agriculture. Reducing water use while maintaining a sustainable agricultural economy is a significant challenge.

Researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno and the Desert Research Institute are actively studying the potential use of alternative crops, biomass production, restoration, soil management, water use efficiency and irrigation scheduling to conserve water in the Walker Basin. Crops such as Basin wildrye, grain amaranth, teff and buckwheat, hold promise in reducing the amount of water needed to raise economically viable crops. Reducing water use would create the potential for growers to lease or sell remaining water rights to help replenish and restore both the Walker River and Walker Lake.

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Onions (allium cepa) are a major agricultural crop in Nevada, one of the top five commodities for the state in 2012.