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.
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.
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.