The Journal of Extension -

April 2011 // Volume 49 // Number 2 // Ideas at Work // v49-2iw4

Crossing Boundaries with Teamwork and Economics for Water Management

The Water Team used teamwork and economics to transcend water boundaries. Recommendations implemented and physical improvements extended the irrigation season by 16 days in 2008, increased potential farm profits, and increased water conservation. The Team is now poised to cross more boundaries, assembling data and coordinated plans for watershed management and groundwater recharge for larger geographic areas, watersheds, and organizations.

Christi Falen
Extension Educator
University of Idaho (UI)
Shoshone, Idaho

Howard Neibling
UI Extension Irrigation Specialist
Twin Falls, Idaho

Bill Hazen
Consultant and Retired UI Extension Educator
Gooding, Idaho

Mike Telford
Telford's Sun Valley Seed
Dietrich, Idaho


The Big Wood Canal Company (BWCC) was formed in 1907, following completion of Magic Dam, to serve an area lying primarily in Lincoln County, Idaho. Irrigation water is necessary for production agriculture in this arid desert environment. Water shortages have always been a way of life in this area, because the development company grossly oversold the amount of land to be irrigated. The droughts of the 70's, 80's, 90's, and now the 2000's have continued to make this area a very difficult place to farm and ranch for a living. Not only drought, but also legal issues from western water laws can back groups into a corner and limit what they can do.

The amount of water available during the irrigation season is not consistent from year to year. Consequently, agricultural producers lack adequate information to make long-term decisions, playing a guessing game on when to implement irrigation system upgrades, when to replant alfalfa, which crops to grow based on water availability for that season, and whether or not to apply for funding to transition to center pivots or buy additional pipe to reduce ditch losses. Banks are reluctant to provide irrigation equipment funding without consistent crop production potential. This creates a limiting environment for BWCC shareholders to make water conservation or long-term planning decisions and reduces their potential farm profitability.

Our Response

In an effort to improve the water situation, the BWCC Board appointed a committee to research options. The BWCC Water Team (Team) was formed, consisting of nine shareholders (farm/livestock producers), the manager, the water master, a ditch rider, a consultant, an Extension educator, and an Extension irrigation specialist. All agreed that solutions required creativity and open-minded thinking and that they be factually based with supportive data. The Team's broad knowledge base, the willingness of each member to actively participate in research and synthesis of data, and the use of economics, initiated an innovative approach with a strong emphasis on teamwork—critical to move past age-old battles and forward into solutions that work.

To cross water management boundaries we needed a "mix of technical tools and people skills, so ranch and farm families could manage their current and future risks" (Fetsch, 1999). True teamwork with a "co-creation" attitude of "let's create the future we individually and collectively want" (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Boss, & Smith, 1994) was critical to start shifting mental paradigms to increase water conservation and potential farm profitability across the entire canal system.

Multiple recommendations for creating successful, amicable family estate transfer plans (Fetsch, 1999) and successful integration for farm businesses (Olsen, Jones, Jost, & Griffin, 2009) were applied to cross water management boundaries, including common vision/goals, relationship building through open communication, mutual respect, critical listening, understanding of shared information, and rational assessment of economic feasibility/profitability through concrete data and not personal assumptions. The Team's focus on data and use of technical tools (economic and hydraulic modeling and analysis, automated soil moisture determination, stream and canal flow measurements, handheld computers, and Google earth), reduced emotional decisions that limit necessary mental paradigm shifts.

The jointly created mission was to discover and present pertinent facts/data to answer the question—"Are there practices and/or improvements the BWCC can do to enhance the profitability and value of the resources for its grower/owners?" Over 40 hours of Team meetings, plus individual research, investigation, and computer modeling were conducted to address the mission. Five focus areas were identified: 1) economic analysis; 2) how much irrigation water are we losing and where; 3) what are other canal companies doing to cope with short water supplies; 4) specific physical improvements, prioritized by cost per unit of water saved; 5) management practices at the farm and company level to increase days of water.

Water Team Outcomes

The Team presented the mission, executive summary, and complete report with 17 recommendations to the BWCC Board. Recommendations included water conservation practices, soil moisture monitoring by tracts, identification/assessment of water loss, water saving improvements, plus more flexible and demand-based water delivery. Many of the recommendations required a shift in traditional thinking (paradigm shift).

Using an economic analysis tool developed for this area, the Team determined that the best method to increase financial returns to farms/ranches was to increase days of irrigation water available, even if it required reducing irrigated acreage. This principle holds true regardless of the crop, size, or type of the operation.

Changes implemented in 2008 resulted in an estimated increase of $2.56 million, by extended irrigation water for the whole system by at least 16 days. An economic analysis based on the 2008 cropping mix indicated that each day of irrigation season extension was worth $160,000. Crop prices were high in 2008, but even at a more conservative averaged value of $79,000 per day, a 16-day water extension increased crop value to shareholders by $1.26 million.

The Team successfully combined existing individual knowledge with new analyses into a coordinated package to benefit the whole irrigation system. Below are highlights of the Team's success.

  • Seventeen Team recommendations implemented (2008);

  • Days of water use extended 16 days (2008);

  • Potential farm profits increased by $2.56 million (2008);

  • Encouraged water conservation—saving water and only asking for it when necessary;

  • Cooperation among neighbors increased to keep water in the reservoir;

  • Instead of a "use it or lose it" mentality for farm/ranch water management, the thought process is changing to "save water and make money."

The Team results and collaborative approach can be extended to other similar locations. In 2009, some of the Team recommendations were used in surrounding areas. Reshaping canals to reduce water loss and equipment design/flow measurement implementation are two examples. None of these positive outcomes would have been achievable on an individual basis. Extension's successful partnership with local producers in problem solving was synergistic for clientele and Extension.


The Team results agreed with Conway, Godwin, Cloughesy, and Neirenberg, 2003, in that those successful watershed-focused projects were achieved with an informed and effective group making the decisions. Beneficial outcomes were achieved for all shareholders by planning and implementing (integrating the human process with technical, scientific, and practical knowledge) jointly conceived, cost-effective programs (Boone, 1990) to resolve major water issues. Critical water management improvements recommended by the Team are continuing. The Team is now poised to cross more boundaries, assembling data and coordinated plans of watershed management and groundwater recharge for larger geographic areas, watersheds, and organizations.


Boone, E. J . (1990). Crossing lines. Journal of Extension [On-line], 28(3) Article 3TP1. Available at:

Conway, F. D., Godwin, L., D., Cloughesy, M., & Neirenberg, J. (2003). Watershed stewardship education program—a multidisciplinary Extension education program for Oregon's watershed councils. Journal of Extension [On-line], 41(4) Article 4FEA4. Available at:

Fetsch, R. J. (1999). Some do's and don'ts for successful farm and ranch estate transfers. Journal of Extension [On-line], 37(3) Article 3IAW2. Available at:

Olsen, C.S., Jones,R. Jost, J., & Griffin, C. L. (2009). Integrating economics, management, and human relationship issues into training for successful farm family businesses. Journal of Extension [On-line], 47(5) Article 51AW6. Available at:

Senge, P. M., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Boss, R. B., & Smith, B. J. (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook, Strategies and tools for building a learning organization, p. 312-328. Crown Business.