When Miguel Garcia was a child in small-town Mexico, he and those around him were constantly looking forward to escaping the farmland.

But now, after earning his Ph.D., Garcia is right back in the fields teaching farmers how to preserve water while producing their grapes.

And honestly, he isn't mad about getting back to his roots. 

The conversation surrounding water use in California is certainly not a new one, but in recent years, the Napa County Resource Conservation District has been running a program geared specifically toward growers and their irrigation patterns, with Garcia at the helm.

According to the 2020 California Wine Community Sustainability Report, irrigation accounts for the greatest use of water in vineyards, suggesting why the work of folks like Miguel Garcia is so important for Napa Valley. Garcia, an expert in soil science, works directly with farmers across the region to help them gain a better grasp on the effectiveness of their irrigation behaviors.

Garcia oversees all Napa County RCD programs related to soil health, water conservation, carbon sequestration and farming, which includes the Carneros vineyard he helps manage for demonstration purposes.

“We obtained this property in the '90s, and we have utilized it as an educational tool,” said Garcia. “Here we have sets of different technologies that allow us to show people how they can manage their irrigation better, and during workshops, we not only tell them how to use it, but we want to show them as well.”

The Huichica Creek Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Vineyard is located at 2135 Duhig Road, and hosts a slew of programming for interested folks in the wine industry. When not keeping up with the sustainable vineyard, Garcia is also responsible for conducting irrigation assessments directly onsite.

“I drive all over the valley, and talk to a lot of different people,” he said. “Part of my job is to work directly with growers, assisting them with soil and water conservation … So essentially, we go into the vineyards and we assess the irrigation system, and then we give the growers a report showing them how their system is functioning.”

There are multiple ways to do this, and Garcia utilizes different scientific measurements and tools to give a full assessment. Evapotranspiration sensors are installed and measure how much the vines are transpiring, or exhaling water, which Garcia says gives them an indication of whether they need to irrigate or not. On the other hand, pressure chambers, or “pressure bombs,” allow you to monitor the stress level in the vines.

“Each soil also has different capacity to retain water, so if you know your soil texture, and you know your water holding capacity, you can have soil moisture probes installed and you will know exactly how much water you have in the soil,” said Garcia. “And you also can tell how much of that water is actually available to the plant, because not all of the water that is in the ground is available to the plant.”

In the two-and-a-half years Garcia has been in Napa County, he has conducted assessments at 51 wineries, and still goes out for visits every week. Garcia says that they are lucky enough to be able to provide these assessments free of charge through grant funding, and hopes to continue to do so.

“The idea is to give them all the tools that they could need in order to develop a much more comprehensive irrigation management plan, with the idea that you want to give the plants exactly what they need … no more, no less,” he said. “Especially in situations like the one we are in now with intense drought, the soils are getting dried out really quickly, so people had to begin irrigating sooner than they usually would.”

Garcia said that he began conducting irrigating evaluations in July in 2019, which bumped up to June last year and March 31 this year. The scheduling of these appointments is also a valuable asset to Garcia, who can determine how dry soils are based on when farmers begin to water extensively.

“We go with the model, ‘You cannot manage what you don't measure,’” he said.

In addition to accessing the resources to measure the qualities and water capacity of soils, the continued drought in Napa County also complicates sustainable practices. Trucks hauling thousands of gallons of recycled water  can be seen driving back and forth to vineyards just to make up for the shortage in Napa, all of which have become well-acquainted with Garcia.

“You might see some of our neighbors trucking lots of water, because they have no choice if they don't want to remove their vines,” he explained. “Some people I've talked to, they decided to just not grow grapes, and are keeping them barely alive and drop all the fruit because they don't have enough water to get the quality that they need.”

Garcia said it's been a stressful year for everyone, and he hopes that services like theirs will help create more resilient soils -- and thus businesses -- for these farmers. After working all across California with other crops like dates and strawberries, Garcia loves learning more about the area and viticulture and finds Napa to be unique in terms of adopting sustainable practices.

“The farming community here in Napa is more progressive, and more educated as well … You don't find something like this anywhere else in the world,” said Garcia. “The crop is expensive, the land is expensive, there are wineries everywhere, and they're making a lot of money on this, so they invest a lot of money in it.”

An easy way to do this is to implement a controlled, micro-irrigation system, which according to the 2020 Sustainability Report, about 82% of growers have used since 2016. Similarly, 99% have developed a water management plan, with 87% measuring their water use with flow meters or other mechanisms.

“It is expensive sometimes to change things in the irrigation equipment, but if you don't, you're wasting water and you're not giving your plants the water that you think you're giving them,” said Garcia. “So, therefore, your final product, which is the grape, is being affected.”

Learn more about the Napa County RCD’s water conservation efforts at naparcd.org.

You can reach Sam Jones at 707-256-2221 and sjones@napanews.com