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Conserving water: A community collaboration in Coalinga

Students, a nonprofit, and Aera-Coalinga help local farmers monitor moisture for crops

Hanan is just a few months into her freshman year at Coalinga High School and she’s already contributing to her community in a big way. She’s part of a small group of Coalinga-Huron Unified School District students developing technology to aid local farmers in conserving water in partnership with Olinga Learning, a nonprofit organization.

“I install technology in the fields and assess outcomes,” said Hanan, who is in her third year volunteering with the nonprofit.

Students install sensors collecting data for farmers such as soil temperature and crop moisture at Central California farms. Recently, a receiver was installed atop a hill at Aera-Coalinga where it will collect and upload data from sensors up to 17 miles away with the goal of reaching farms as far as 25 miles away come spring.

Olinga Learning Founder and Director Vahid Motazedian, (left) and Aera Safety Advisor Tyson Rall, (right) pose for a picture next to the receiver that could potentially help up to 50 local farms conserve water.
Olinga Learning Founder and Director Vahid Motazedian, (left) and Aera Safety Advisor Tyson Rall, (right) pose for a picture next to the receiver that could potentially help up to 50 local farms conserve water.

“Aera is committed to building stronger communities where we operate and we often do that through partnerships with local organizations and schools,” said Tyson Rall, a safety advisor at Aera-Coalinga. “Olinga Learning reached out to us and asked to put the receiver up on one of our hills to get a strong, clear signal to collect and upload data for local farms – it’s a great project. We knew we had to help make it happen.”

He added, “The project was started and developed by Coalinga students with the help of a local nonprofit, to help farmers better utilize and conserve natural resources. We were thrilled to have a role in helping our local farms in this way.”

The technology helps farmers save time, labor and fuel so they can focus on more important tasks, said Vahid Motazedian, founder and director of Olinga Learning. It automates the collection of data so farmers can focus on analyzing the information and making decisions. For example, farmers can remotely monitor soil moisture from their phone or other device instead of driving out to a ranch, taking out a shovel and digging a hole to check moisture.

“This project has already been a huge success,” said Motazedian, who is also a program director for Coalinga-Huron Unified School District. “My educated guess is that we could reach approximately 40 to 50 farms with this single receiver – some of these farms span thousands of acres. The further the range, the more farms we can help.”

A fresh start

Motazedian left his tech-industry job to volunteer in the nearby farming towns of Gonzales and Watsonville. He started Olinga Learning in 2010 to empower youth to improve their rural communities.

Olinga Learning Founder and Director Vahid Motazedian, also a Coalinga-Huron Unified School District program director, holds the moisture-monitor receiver before it’s installed on a tower erected on a hill at Aera-Coalinga.
Olinga Learning Founder and Director Vahid Motazedian, also a Coalinga-Huron Unified School District program director, holds the moisture-monitor receiver before it’s installed on a tower erected on a hill at Aera-Coalinga.

“I asked students to think about what they could do to help in their communities. We were in a drought, and they wanted to find a way to help local farms conserve water,” Motazedian said. Olinga volunteers completed their first soil moisture project in 2016 at a farm in Gonzales.

It’s a worthy cause – every year, about 9.6 million acres of land are irrigated with roughly 34 million acre-feet of water; an amount that would cover 31 million football fields with a foot of water, according to the California Department of Water Resources. Even small improvements in water usage can make a big difference.

A bigger impact

The moisture monitor project represents many different things for students.

“It’s something that I got to invest in and see the progression from start to finish,” said Dalilah, a freshman at Hartnell College, who started working on the project in her sophomore year of high school. “I just can’t wait to see the results.”

Motazedian said farmers can pay commercial vendors to provide this type of technology, but through this project the technology is free to small farms and built, installed and maintained by local youth.

Hanan said the project shows a small group of students can make a difference, “I get to pass on the knowledge that I’ve learned to younger kids who are starting where I did and I hope to inspire and motivate them to continue helping others.”

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