Growing & Winemaking


Irrigation Audits Available

January 2015
by Andrew Adams
Catch test
To perform a "catch can" test (seen above in a Sonoma County, Calif., vineyard), water is collected from each emitter to ensure flow rates are consistent.

Growers in California’s Sonoma and Napa counties can sign up for an evaluation of their drip-irrigation systems to ensure they’re watering as efficiently as possible.

The resource conservation districts in Sonoma and Napa counties are offering irrigation system evaluations through their mobile irrigation labs. After scheduling an evaluation, a district staff member spend about six to eight hours evaluating an irrigation system.

Keith Abeles manages the program in Sonoma County. He said the evaluations typically involve an interview with the property owner to get a sense of the system before conducting a thorough audit using a protocol developed at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and the California Department of Water Resources.

Abeles conducts a number of tests of the irrigation system to evaluate if emitters are working as designed and if the entire system is operating with the right pressure to ensure there is not too much or too little water being used. Testing includes a full system flush to look for plugged emitters and to evaluate what may be in the system like sand, clay, insects or algae. This also provides insights into the pump and filter system. The tests also are combined with a site evaluation to determine how topography can impact flow rates. Abeles said an optimal system is one that is providing a uniform rate of flow. “The idea is to get the distribution uniformity as even as possible,” he said.

Abeles has conducted a few of the evaluations in Sonoma County and said the district is offering the service for free—although they may need to start charging in the future. The Napa Conservation Resource District also is offering the evaluation free to the first 10 vineyard owners who sign up and at a cost of $200 per evaluation after that. Frances Knapczyk, who is managing the program for the Napa County Resource Conservation District, said the district could waive the fee if the vineyard manager provides an employee to assist with the evaluation.


  • The resource conservation districts for California's Napa and Sonoma counties are offering free/low-cost irrigation audits.
  • Irrigation audits can identify where a system is applying too much or too little water, whether there is adequate pressure and if there are any issues with emitters.
  • Coupled with a pump-efficiency audit, the irrigation-review program can help improve operations and reduce costs.

Pilot program in Russian River Valley
These vineyard evaluations are the brainchild of Kara Heckert, executive director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District. She heard about mobile water labs that other resource conservation districts in the state had set up for crops in 2009 and decided to gauge local interest in a similar program for vineyards. “We have a forward-thinking vineyard community, and after talking to several local growers, it seemed that there was quite a bit of interest in this kind of program,” she said.

That year Heckert said she wrote up a grant proposal and received $74,505 from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to start a pilot program in the Russian River watershed. The pilot program received input from a technical committee that included the Sonoma Winegrowers Association, Advanced Viticulture and the University of California Cooperative Extension; then the district trained staff members to conduct the evaluations.

The pilot program proved successful, and the state Department of Water Resources and Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program responded with $272,355 in grants for 2013 and $195,000 in 2014 to fund the program in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Abeles said the program isn’t intended to provide guidance for how to achieve specific grapegrowing goals but to help ensure an irrigation system is operating as efficiently as possible. He said a common issue he’s seen is when emitters are replaced by models with different capacities. One emitter putting out twice as much water as others in the same vineyard will compromise the uniformity of the entire system. “One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is people will replace emitters as they go,” he said. “Every vineyard should have the same exact emitter at each vine.”

In October Abeles said he had conducted about 10 evaluations and would be following up with vineyard owners to share his findings. He said they could use the information to make improvements where needed and hopefully reduce their overall water use. He added that a small improvement to an irrigation system could result in major water savings.

Identify necessary improvements
In 2009 vineyard manager Richard Howell arranged for a vineyard evaluation of a 26-acre vineyard located off River Road in the Russian River Valley. He said he found the program quite useful and requested evaluations of other properties he managed. “I was really impressed. They took all the data, emitter functioning, pressure tests…and put it into a program, and out of that you get a profile of the vineyard,” he said.

Howell, who specializes in managing small vineyards that are often located at residences, said the evaluations help ensure efficient water use and demonstrate the need for investment to improve irrigation systems. The reports provide accurate and objective information that could convince a vineyard owner to replace a pump or make other investments to make the irrigation system more effective.

“This year was a good year to do it, too, because this is a drought year and it’s a great year to assess moisture depth and efficiencies. And your vineyards are showing you where they’re getting water and where they are not getting water,” he said.

U sing a vineyard evaluation in conjunction with a pump audit through Pacific Gas & Electric’s Advanced Pumping Efficiency Program can provide excellent insights for improving one’s water use, Howell said. Such programs are also a good example of private companies working with government entities. “The information is invaluable, and you’ll also find out where the raccoons are biting into your lines.”

To schedule an evaluation, or for more information, contact Keith Abeles at or Frances Knap­czyk at

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