Idaho Water Monitoring Partnership Honored as Nation’s Top Innovative Program

Tuesday, September 15 2009

KIMBERLY, Idaho – University of Idaho water resources engineer Rick Allen’s high tech method that employs satellite imagery to track water usage down to the level of individual fields helped the Idaho Department of Water Resources address vital issues.

Monday, the state agency - university partnership won the prestigious national Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University’s Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation in the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Idaho’s program uses satellite imagery to monitor water use through evapotranspiration or ET, which is water evaporated from soil and transpired by plants. The method can effectively address growing regional disputes over water supplies, judges said. The institute selected six winners from more than 700 nominations.

The award recognizes the Idaho Water Resources Department’s efforts as the first agency in the U.S. to develop and use satellite imagery to monitor and enhance public understanding of water usage. More than 90 percent of Idaho’s water is used for agricultural irrigation.

Allen’s research at the Kimberly Research and Extension Center near Twin Falls underpinned the state’s efforts.

Duane Nellis, president of the University of Idaho, said, “As a remote sensing scientist, I am particularly proud of Dr. Allen and his research team, and the national recognition this brings to the university. The Idaho Department of Water Resources has been an ideal partner in using sound science to serve the public interest.”

Nellis co-edited the recently-released book “The SAGE Handbook of Remote Sensing” with Timothy A. Warner and Giles M. Foody. Nellis served as lead author of the chapter “Remote Sensing of Cropland Agriculture,” which is his specialty as a scientist, with Kevin P. Price and Donald Rundquist.

Drawing on a Dutch model that employed satellite imagery, the Idaho scientist refined it using pioneering work by now retired James L. Wright of the USDA Agricultural Research Service at Kimberly.

Early research at Kimberly showed how much water different crops used. Wright’s research established alfalfa as the reference standard for estimating water use, helping Allen and others to refine their use of satellite images.

“Our method treats everyone the same and that has been a big factor in its acceptance,” Allen said. Other states exploring Allen’s method include Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Nevada, California and New Mexico. Officials in Morocco, South Africa and Spain have also used the method.
Allen’s work combined the use of NASA’s Landsat satellite images, which can map areas as large as 10,000 square miles or 6.4 million acres with the ground-based research at Kimberly. By expanding it to focus on energy balance, his method can monitor water use in individual fields as small as 40 acres.

Idaho Department of Water Resources satellite imagery experts Tony Morse and Bill Kramber at Boise saw the potential in Allen’s work and helped refine it for public use. The decade-long, state-university collaboration led to the award.

Climate change experts predict Idaho’s water supply will undergo a dramatic shift in coming decades away from cold winters that favor accumulation of the mountain snows that store water until late spring.

Although predictions say southern Idaho may become slightly wetter overall, most water may fall as rain and flow downstream before peak summer demand, increasing conflicts for available supplies.

Trying to track who uses water and where has been expensive and difficult. Most monitoring now is done at the county level by monitoring flow in irrigation canals or by monitoring electrical use at individual wells.

Satellite monitoring cuts the state’s cost to $22 from an average of $119 a year to track electrical costs per well.

Allen’s METRIC system, or Mapping EvapoTranspiration at high Resolution with Internalized Calibration, also shows promise in addressing other issues ranging from helping track stream flow restoration projects for fish and settling water disputes before they reach court.

“Water scarcity is fast becoming one of our nation’s most important resource issues,” said Stephen Goldsmith, the Kennedy School’s Innovations in American Government program director.

“As population and land needs change, mapping evapotranspiration supports more accurate planning and encourages water irrigation conservation. Jurisdictions across the nation can learn from Idaho’s model for solving water-resource conflicts and improving water management,” Goldsmith said.


About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state's flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university's student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

Contacts: Rick Allen, professor of water resources engineering, (208) 423-6601,; Bill Loftus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, (208) 885-7694,

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit