Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On the Cutting Edge of Water Saving Science: A Look Back at 2016

By Michael Gutierrez

We're not usually in the habit of ending the year having to clarify what it is we do and why, but here we are. From my perspective, 2016 was a remarkable year in water research. Summer water quality issues in South Florida put our water in the national headlines for weeks (the debate rolls on). Then projections about future water demand in Florida underscored the need for continued work around water-use efficiency. Meanwhile our group of UF/IFAS water specialists on campus and around the state remained focused on providing solutions for present and future challenges, and I kept doing my best to find unique ways to communicate those efforts to you. What follows are some highlights from 2016.

Water researchers: Maria Zamora, Mackenzie Boyer, Eliza Breder, Michael Dukes & Bernard Cardenas
Statewide Work
One of the measures of successful research is how well it can move from design and data to real-world impact. For the Dukes research group (pictured above), the smart irrigation study in Orange County continued to inform policy this year when the Board of County Commissioners formally recognized the water-saving capacity of smart technology. There is already work around creating a watering restriction variance for smart device users

This year also saw UF/IFAS go even bigger on promoting and coordinating water-focused work in Florida by creating 5 positions for regional specialized agents in water. Each agent concentrates on the water issues specific to their sector. This year we profiled Dr. Lisa Krimsky from the South District. We’ll continue to profile the other water RSAs in 2017 to learn about the water issues of note in their sectors. In the meantime, keep up with their efforts on Twitter.

Irrigation Tools and How to Get Them
In my experience as a water resources tech with UF/IFAS I have never seen more interest in basic landscape irrigation know-how among IFAS staff around the state than in 2016. I wrote about one instance of assisting an agent in Lake County earlier this year. But we had other requests for help that we were not able to address. Fortunately, some of the best irrigation-focused programs in the state are currently lending their expertise to fashioning workshops where extension agents can learn irrigation system audit basics. How do I know they’re the best? Well in 2016 I had the privilege to work with both of them.  

Miami-Dade’s Urban Conservation Unit administers an irrigation rebate program as large as its region requires. This program is a model of UF/IFAS and utility collaboration. Further, despite their whopping load of field work they remain largely accessible online and eager to share their knowledge
On the Southwest coast of Florida is Manatee County Extension. Their mobile irrigation lab also executes an irrigation rebate program, the details of which I was so impressed with that I requested a ride-along this summer while in the area on other field work. The result of that meeting was a short video that tries to do some justice to how effective that team is in educating the public about water-use efficiency.
As more utilities move toward incentivizing smart irrigation technology, the demand for trainings and workshops for area irrigation contractors continues to grow. That’s where we come in. In 2016 the Dukes research group conducted 3 trainings in Southwest/Central Florida on proper installation and use of soil moisture sensors and weather-based irrigation controllers. Look for us in your area in 2017.

Dr. Kati Migliaccio at ASABE AIM 2016
Home Team
This year ASABE held their annual international meetings (AIM) in Orlando. Most of our water group presented research there and I had the opportunity to document really exciting student competitions like robotics and the fountain wars. AIM also served as an occasion for recognizing noteworthy work as Dr. Michael Dukes was honored with the John Deere Gold Medal and Dr. Kati Migliaccio won for Outstanding Associate Editor (pictured above). 

This was not the only honor Dr. Migliaccio would receive in 2016. This year the UF Water Institute recognized Dr. Migliaccio as a Faculty Fellow. Watch her Distinguished Scholar Seminar on the future of water management here.

For me collaborating with students is one of the more rewarding aspects of work in academia. At ASABE, UF ABE robotics team leader (and the future of precision ag) Amanda DeCanio was integral to me being able to complete the short video I was tasked with. Later, Ms. DeCanio agreed to reflect on her ASABE AIM experience for IrriGator.
UF ABE PhD Candidate and NSF Graduate Research Fellow Natalie Nelson continued contributing excellent entries to IrriGator this year – taking our readership along on her treks to conferences and researcher gatherings across the country. And while I missed my first Irrigation Show and Education Conference since 2012 this year, Food and Resource Economics PhD Candidate Maria Vrachioli attended as an E3 Learner and chronicled her experience with the wider irrigation industry for us as well.  

2017: You Are Invited!

The fall of 2016 found us dedicating considerable lab time to pressure regulating sprinkler bodies. This work helped inform what will eventually result in EPA WaterSense certification of spray sprinkler bodies (SSB) as water-saving devices. Despite the solitary nature of this lab work – research associate Bernard Cardenas toiling at the testing apparatus for hours with different sprinkler brands - we found inventive ways to bring our audience/the greater public into the lab with us. Similarly this summer, Dr. Michael Dukes and I translated a sensor wiring mishap and some great corrective work in Pasco County into an elucidating dialogue about water saving technology and perception. Look for this piece to go national in 2017’s first issue of Irrigation Today

We’re going to stay on the cutting edge of irrigation research because that’s where we need to be. See you in the new year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Mehrhof Gardens: Florida-Friendly Landscaping in Our Own Back Yard

This summer I was involved in documenting the planning and execution of UF’s newest Florida-Friendly Landscaping demonstration piece: Mehrhof Gardens. Named after the buildings in its vicinity, Mehrhof Gardens helps beautify a highly visible, well-trafficked area of campus while serving as a living example of sustainable landscaping practices.

How Sustainable is Sustainable?
But can you really maintain an aesthetically pleasing landscape sustainably? This is a pressing question of late. This year the 1000 Friends of Florida, UF GeoPlan Center and FDACS released the Florida 2070 report. Its projections of future population growth, land-use alterations and greater demand on resources paint a sobering picture about what’s ahead for the Sunshine State. In light of this information, some in the know are reacting with austere prescriptions, while others are confident that we have solutions for tomorrow’s challenges.

In the meantime, when you're in the neighborhood stop by Mehrhof Gardens and maybe you’ll be inspired to add a Florida-Friendly touch to your home landscape.

Mehrhof Gardens: The designers speak!  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Irrigation Show & Education Conference 2016: A Student’s Perspective

Last week, UF Graduate Student Maria Vrachioli attended the Irrigation Association’s Irrigation Show and Education Conference as a participant in the immersive E3 Program for students and instructors. This is Ms. Vrachioli’s report back.

I am a third year PhD student in the Food and Resource Economics (FRE) Department in the University of Florida.  As an economist, I have focused on creating applied mathematical models to analyze water efficiency and productivity in the agricultural sector, where the ever increasing demand for food is challenging us to develop more efficient and sustainable ways of exploiting our natural resources. 
Maria Vrachioli - PhD Candidate, UF

Given that agriculture is the biggest consumer of fresh water in the world, irrigation is at the epicenter of this dilemma. To this end, my doctoral dissertation will be focused on understanding how the adoption of new irrigation technologies by farmers can allow them to use a scarce water resource more efficiently, while maximizing their profits. With the support of colleagues at the World Bank, this analysis will be applied on a data base of water consumption and agricultural production in Morocco.

E3 Program Ready
Attending the 2016 Irrigation Show and Education Conference as an E3 Learner will be a good way for me to bridge my academic research on agricultural water use with the latest technologies and practices in irrigation. I took two courses during the event: 
  • Agricultural Irrigation Specialist
  • Principles of Irrigation: Agriculture

Classroom POV: Irrigation is part theory and practice
These courses gave me a really good base on which I can build my future research and let me understand deeply the terminology used by the experts in the irrigation field. I would say that I enjoyed both of the courses, but the Principles of Irrigation in Agriculture course was a little bit more interesting for me as through this 2-day course I was afforded a good review of all the information I learned in different irrigation classes at university.

In the General Session presentation
One of the things that I found really surprising was despite the fact that we have so many efficient irrigation technologies available for farmers, sometimes training is lacking for them to properly adopt new irrigation technology. This results in less efficient irrigation practices and less profits for the farmers.

I spent many hours in the show floor of the IA event and I was really surprised by all the new and innovative technologies presented there. You could find all kinds of companies related to agriculture and landscape irrigation.

Hear the Bringing Water to Life Podcast live from the expo floor
Advice for 2017
Attending the Irrigation Show was an amazing experience for me and I strongly recommend students to attend it in the future. I strongly believe that applying to E3 cannot only help you build on your theoretical and practical skills through the courses, but also it is the best way to expand your network and why not get in contact with your future employer in the irrigation industry.

See you in Orlando, FL!!!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

“It’s really about communicating”: An Interview with Dr. Eric McLamore

This November, Dr. Eric McLamore, associate professor in Agricultural and Biological Engineering, was honored with a USDA Excellence in Teaching award in the New Teacher category. Dr. McLamore is popular among students in the ABE department for his wide-ranging research and a grant writing course he teaches which includes learning about and creating digital media. In fact, not too long ago Dr. McLamore worked with IrriGator on a short video about air conditioning condensate irrigation.

In this same collaborative spirit, Dr. McLamore recently shared with us some thoughts on his current research and receiving a teaching award.

USDA Excellence in Teaching award recipients for UF/IFAS: Eric McLamore and Nicole Stedman 
What do you focus on in your research?

We make biosensors – measurement technology for measuring small molecules, viruses, cells and everything in between. Most of our work is applied within food safety or water quality; although we do some medical and nutritional work as well.

Right now we have a big project where we’re trying to measure a bacterium in food called Listeria monocytogenes – it’s a particularly dangerous organism that affects children and the elderly. It’s a major problem across the world. We’re working in the US with food producers on both the water quality side – things like irrigation water within the farm and also the processing facility. And we’re also working overseas. We have a project in Colombia working with displaced refugees monitoring that pathogen as well as others on food - trying to help people who are very vulnerable from a health standpoint. We also have some work initiating in that same sort of humanitarian context in Malaysia right now.
La Toma: Colombian community impacted by small-scale gold mining
I mentioned that we measure small molecules. One of the larger things we’re measuring in a similar humanitarian effort in Colombia is mercury. That project is focusing on illegal gold mining which is prevalent in that region of the world. We’re working with a community of displaced Afro-Colombians and indigenous tribes who live in the mountains. The illegal miners use mercury to create what’s called amalgamate - which is how they extract the gold. The miners don’t understand the damage that they’re doing to the environment and to themselves and the indigenous communities by using so much mercury. We’re finding levels hundreds of times higher than what the World Health Organization allows in any drinking water. We also measure fish that the locals consume. We’re trying to put together a project where we can assist the community as well as help train the miners who are exposed to the most dangerous levels of mercury.
Read a WHO report on gold and mining health
You teach a grant writing course which emphasizes the usefulness of digital media in terms of professional development. How do you use these tools in your research?  

This is enormously important. In engineering we do a lot of nanomaterials and chemistry and physics and all these things – the fundamental sciences drive what we do. But at the end of the day it’s really about communicating it to people and making sure that they know where we’re coming from, they understand how to use the science in the way that we intended it to be used. 

Sampling and testing for mercury in water
And that really comes down to oral communication, digital media - these sorts of things. From a technology standpoint as well, the sensors typically output data that goes to a smart phone. So we’re getting to a point now where we’re going to start creating apps. We’re going to develop some of those things for the communities so that it’s user-friendly and not so sciencey.

Right now on the mercury project we’re working with a filmmaker in Colombia. We have several videos online. We need to get the message out and give a voice to the people who need help.

What does it mean to be honored with the new teacher award at this stage of your career?

It was primarily associated with the humanitarian work and bringing that kind of research into the classroom. It’s humbling and it’s a big honor. Just standing in the room with some amazing people who have been teaching their entire career and learning from them about all the things they do gave me a lot of confidence in what I’m doing.

Researchers and community leaders meeting 
What are some projects you’re focusing on in 2017?

The big thing is these two humanitarian projects. There are a lot of other projects that we’re working on that are important. For example, I have a student who is trying to make a type of breathalyzer, but it monitors a compound associated with diabetes that is the number one diagnostic tool for preventing death in children – it’s called diabetic ketoacidosis. He’s monitoring a specific maker in the breath that’s kind of difficult to measure with ornery kids who are sick and can’t communicate as adults can. Hopefully we can make a cute, fun breathalyzer that monitors this marker and helps these kids stay out of the emergency room because it’s a deadly problem. We have some other very important projects, but the humanitarian work has been a focus of the last year and will probably continue to be for the next four or five years.