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Boise River could be the largest US surface water irrigation system to be electronically monitored

Every drop of water that comes down the Boise River is accounted for; used to irrigate crops and residential lawns and gardens across the Treasure Valley. Water managers are planning to modernize the way they monitor and manage flows to increase efficiency and conservation.

‘We administer the water in the Boise [River] from the headwaters - Atlanta, Idaho City, Big Smokies, Pine Featherville - all the way to Parma,” District 63 Watermaster Mike Meyers explains.

Meyers and assistant Watermaster Daniel Hoke are standing with me at the headworks of the Pioneer Irrigation district, in the shadow of the Meridian LDS Temple.

From here, about 200 cubic feet of water per second is flowing to users west of Linder Road. Every week, workers drive ditches across the Boise system monitoring water levels recorded over the previous seven days.

“It takes us about nine hours to drive the whole river,” Meyers said. “It takes us about four hours to manually input it.”

That data is used to determine the destination and volume of water served to end-users. If flows drop below a certain threshold, junior rights-holders might no longer be allowed to receive water, for example.

Adjusting gates based on the data takes about a week.

“If [users] have a priority date of 1880 and they have no storage component to their water, if we drop below that 1880 and we don't know it, they're going to use other people's storage until we can generate that report,” Meyers explained.

Electronic monitoring at every point on the system would provide real-time usage data. For about $120,000, Meyers said the system cuts the 13 hours of manual work down to about ten minutes.

It also means more accurate distribution of water, saving the district around 5,000-10,000 acre feet each year, Meyers estimates. That’s between one and two days worth of water for the entire system; a meaningful number.

Meyers points out that Anderson Ranch Dam is being expanded for $120 million to add 29,000-acre-feet of storage.

Junior users who may have benefitted from the manual reporting delay for decades and now may have to rent more water storage rights than before have been understanding of the potential change, he said.

“If the Department of Defense relies on the LORAWAN system. I think we can”

The technology comes from Nebraska-based Paige Wireless, where it’s already widely used to monitor and control groundwater resources. Instead of cellular-based communications which can be unreliable in many pockets of Idaho - including the Treasure Valley - a long-range wide area network (LoRaWAN) is used to connect each monitoring point in the system. It’s low power and capable of running on batteries using unregulated frequencies.

“So the LoRaWAN system is used in the Department of Defense,” Meyers explained when asked about security. “It's used on high speed rail [and] many other components that require high security. If the Department of Defense relies on the LORAWAN system. I think we can.”

The district has also started installing cameras at key locations for troubleshooting and security purposes.

“The sky's the limit on water conservation with this network”

The last piece of funding for the $120,000 project is a grant Meyers expects to secure soon enough to get the system installed and up and running by next year.

The next goal is fully automating the 88 control gates in district canals and ditches, a $5 million project. A dozen gates on the network are already automated, some in place for more than a decade.

Beyond the canals, bringing smart technology into irrigation systems in parks, subdivisions and farms could balance out the stress rapid growth has caused up and down the Boise River system. When farmland becomes homes and businesses, surface water usage on that acreage goes up.

“We have become an on demand system, and so we have to keep those flows at each pump 24-hours a day,” Meyers said. “Whereas agriculture, it was: on for ten days, off for ten days. The system was purely designed for agriculture, not urbanization. So we're trying to find ways to meet that 24-hour demand without upsetting the system or wasting so much water.”

And other irrigation managers are watching what happens on the Boise River. Meyers said the network would be the largest of its kind for surface water monitoring in the United States.

“Really, the sky's the limit on water conservation with this network and this project.”

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News. He's also heard Saturday nights on Boise State Public Radio Music's Jazz Conversations.