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Researchers to help water flow more freely to farms, fish and people with USDA grant

Scene of blooming apple trees
A new $5 million USDA-funded project led by WSU researchers will help water markets support high value crops, such as apple orchards in the Yakima Valley (Photo by Dana Pride).

New technology and management approaches could help the West’s precious water flow more efficiently for farmers, residents and fish, thanks to pioneering work by scientists at Washington State University.

“Water is a valuable resource for everything from food production to drinking water, recreation and a healthy ecosystem,” said Jonathan Yoder, director of the State of Washington Water Research Center, professor in School of Economic Sciences, and affiliate faculty in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. “But water doesn’t always flow to its most important and valuable uses.”

Water is a challenging resource to manage for many reasons, including legal challenges for water rights, changing weather and uncertain supplies, difficulties in measuring consumption and measuring its value and role in natural systems, and the costs and constraints of storing and moving it.

Different crops and water uses, such as potatoes, tree fruit, and irrigation for livestock pasture, have different values that can change seasonally or over time, affecting the demand for water.

This summer, Yoder and a national, multi-disciplinary team of researchers begin a five-year effort to smooth water’s flow with a $5 million grant announced today from the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Water for Food Production Systems Challenge Area.

Jonathan Yoder head shot
Jonathan Yoder, lead investigator and director of the State of Washington Water Research Center (WSU Photo).

Their project, titled “Technology for trade: new tools and new rules for water use efficiency in agriculture and beyond,” includes researchers from five programs at WSU—the State of Washington Water Research Center, the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, the School of Economic Sciences, the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. They will join forces with scientists at the University of Idaho, University of Washington, Kansas State University, the University of Utah, Mammoth Trading, Aspect Consulting, and a diverse group of water users and stakeholders.

The team will test new technology and practices that can help water flow to high-valued uses by improving information and opportunities to use water efficiently—ultimately helping farmers grow more with less water, and making more water available for people, fish and river flows.

Scenic photo of waterfall in urban setting, downtown Spokane
Municipal communities, like Spokane, Wash., above, depend on water to thrive. A new $5 million grant project, led by researchers at WSU, helps water flow more efficiently to important uses (Photo by Dana Pride).

“Our project will help find ways to improve water use efficiency in agriculture, by focusing on how technology, water rights, and regulation work together to make the most of available water for all of its social and environmental values,” said Yoder, lead investigator for the project.

Testing new tech and new governance ideas

“We’re developing three new technologies that will help improve water use efficiency across a wide range of uses,” he added.

The first, smart market technology, will facilitate water-rights transactions, making them work better, quicker and easier.

“Smart market technology could help water users more easily trade water with less impact on stream flows and fellow water users,” Yoder said.

Another new technology, seasonal forecasting of water availability, crop water demands, and crop productivity, could provide more precise and timely information to support water market decisions.

“Water availability in the West is highly variable and uncertain,” Yoder said. “Better seasonal forecasting of water availability and water demand can be really valuable for supporting efficient water use, water markets, and water regulation.”

Finally, researchers will pilot a satellite-based automated monitoring technique called METRIC in Washington state.

Short for “Mapping EvapoTranspiration at high Resolution and Internalized Calibration,” this technique uses satellite imagery to measure water consumption by agriculture or other water consumers. With the grant, researchers will help perfect this system, giving water resource managers a clearer picture of agricultural water use, and ultimately, residential use as well.

The technologies examined in the project will be tested in three regions of the Columbia River basin—the Yakima, Okanogan, and Walla Walla watersheds.

Along with new technology, the project will identify promising changes in law, legislative and administrative rules, contracts and norms to promote water efficiencies.

“New technologies like the ones we are focusing on may hold the keys to modernizing water rights in the long run,” said Yoder, “so that water can be better allocated across the Northwest’s many competing uses.”

  • More information on the project, including all faculty involved, can be found on the State of Washington Water Research Center website.

Media Contacts

Jonathan Yoder, Professor, School of Economic Sciences; Director, State of Washington Water Research Center, Affiliate, Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, (509) 335-8596