Grapegrowers Get Federal Water Funding

USDA grant seeks to protect yields and quality while reducing water demand

by Paul Franson
vineyard water
Research will include improved rootstocks that would better withstand salt and drought.
Washington, D.C. -- The United States Department of Agriculture has given $7.2 million in funding to help grapegrowers reduce water demand while producing comparable yields and quality.

The grant is from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to the National Grape & Wine Initiative (NGWI) for its top priority research project and will last five years. It will deal with many issues facing grapegrowers, including water shortages and increasing salinity in existing water supplies.

Water shortages are already common and projected to worsen in the arid western United States, and salinity is an increasing problem in the grapegrowing regions of California’s Central Valley and Central Coast, as well as in Eastern Washington and other typically arid regions of the west.

The research will benefit wine, table and juice grapegrowers, though it’s anticipated that their needs will differ. Grapes are the highest value perennial specialty crop in the U.S., and the semi-arid regions of California, Oregon and Washington account for more than 90% of U.S. grape production.

“Water scarcity, impaired water quality, aberrant weather and changing climate threaten grape production in this region,” said Jean-Mari Peltier, president of NGWI. “We are extremely pleased that the USDA recognized grapegrowers are struggling with water scarcity and related salinity issues. This project will help the industry develop strategies to use less water, while preserving grape quality.”

The goal of the research is to provide recommendations for sustainable water management in wine, table, raisin and juice grape production using limited and impaired water supplies.

“This project proposes research needed to sustain one of the nation’s most valuable crops in a future with an uncertain water supply,” according the co-principal investigator, Dr. Andrew McElrone of USDA-Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Department of Viticulture & Enology, University of California, Davis (UCD).

The research will investigate a number of different issues, including improved rootstocks that would be better able to withstand salt and drought.

It will also look at ways growers can reduce water consumption, including sustainable water management, deficit irrigation, improved monitoring and instrumentation and leaching salts from soils during the winter, when rain falls.

Part of the effort will include education and communication to growers and an economic evaluation of the impacts of both water shortages and possible steps to deal with them. Peltier said that the research will be highly interactive and work with growers. She expects to unveil this part of the project at the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium in January.

At this point, however, water for frost protection -- a contentious issue in California -- is not included, although it could be added.

The project was developed through extensive consultation with researchers and growers to ensure that industry needs would be met.

The research team brings together experts from several western states, and various research institutions under the direction of principal investigators McElrone and Dr. Andrew McElrone of USDA-ARS. The team includes Gary Bañuelos, Catherine M. Grieve, Donald Suarez, Dr. Dong Wang, also of USDA- ARS; Mark Battany, Drs. Andrew Walker and Jean-Jacques Lambert of UCD; Dr. Joan Davenport, Washington State University and Kurt Schwabe, UC Riverside.

Peltier told Wines & Vines that outreach is considered a major objective of the project, using extension and educational training to disseminate recommendations to grower and academic audiences via presentations, publications, Web-based learning and tailgate outreach.

The proposal included cash and in-kind contributions from the California Table Grape Commission, J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, E. & J. Gallo Winery, Sun-Maid Growers of California, National Grape Cooperative (Welch’s) and the NGWI.

For more details about this project, visit ngwi.org.

The National Grape & Wine Initiative is a nationwide coalition representing all segments of the grape industry including raisins, juice, fresh grapes and wine.  NGWI membership includes grapegrowers, processors, wineries and representatives of academic institutions and cooperative extension organizations committed to improving the industry.

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