Interdisciplinary Team and Management Approaches Help Solve Irrigation Problems, Colorado State Agricultural Engineer Says

Engineering support for irrigation in foreign lands sounds like a job for professionals who know pumps, sluices and gates.

A Colorado State University agricultural engineer, however, has written extensively about how interdisciplinary teams working within the "culture" with irrigation officials and farmers can help them solve their problems in developing countries and in the United States itself.

Wayne Clyma, who recently retired from the chemical and bioresource engineering department, is co-author of five of the six articles that constitute the recent edition of the prestigious professional publication, Irrigation and Drainage Systems: An International Journal.

The point to the articles is that they set forth a management-oriented, interdisciplinary team approach to engaging in and solving irrigated agriculture’s problems-a procedure badly needed in some overseas settings and, surprisingly, also in this country.

Clyma spent much of the 1970s and 1980s working in foreign countries, especially in Pakistan, developing a "Management Improvement Program" (he nicknamed it MIP) for dealing with a variety of irrigated agricultural problems. He and his colleagues took an interdisciplinary and management approach to dealing with the government bureaucracies and farmers of developing nations. The tactic, which brought in agronomists, agricultural and civil engineers, economists, management specialists and sociologists, was generally successful, in large part because the varied entities concerned with irrigation, water supplies and other ag-related issues were helped to develop common understandings and work together.

Back in the United States and on sabbatical leave to the U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory in Phoenix in 1988-89, Clyma began to help lab staff implement a MIP for an Arizona irrigation district. The Maricopa-Stanfield district had recently constructed a canal water delivery system supplying Central Arizona Project water to farmers. Developed by the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation, the system was the most modern, effectively designed and constructed irrigation project ever built.

In fact, said Clyma, some thought an MIP would not discover any need for improvement, but the project proceeded because it also focused on benefits for farmers and supporting agencies.

A team of experts, both outside and local consultants, worked with farmers and supporting agencies-local, state and federal- to understand from field studies what needed improvement. Agencies and farmers were encouraged to reach a common understanding of needs and identify ways to address those needs.

What developed, Clyma says, was an understanding between agencies and with farmers that led the government groups to cooperate and to support farmers more effectively. Farmers learned how to better manage expensive irrigation water, reduce other costs, improve nitrogen management and work more effectively with each other and with the agencies.

Maricopa-Stanfield provided good water delivery service. The district found it could improve, however, by completing computer controls for the main canal, initiating improved water measurement at the head of laterals (secondary canals), changing water prices to encourage water use for winter grains instead of continuous cotton plantings and supporting other agencies’ efforts. Clyma said the district initiated these changes once they understood needs and how to address them despite their initial concern that no need for change would be identified.

The district was commended at a meeting of federal, state and local agencies, and state water users (cities, industries and water districts) for studying and improving their operations. The district also created close cooperative working relationships with the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the agency that regulates water use in the state, when before frequent conflicts were common. The Maricopa-Stanfield district initially expressed concern, Clyma said, that they would be criticized for mistakes identified by the MIP, but that turned out not to be so. Farmers were provided improved water service in several areas, including increased water service flexibility by giving farmers a better understanding of district rules.

Completed in 1994, the Maricopa-Stansfield district effort has been named one of the four most successful projects of its kind in the country by a non-profit panel that surveyed federal, state, local and private projects in all the 50 states. Project impact on the clients (farmers) was the evaluation criteria. The key, said Clyma, is developing a common understanding for communication and cooperation-just as he found that culture demanded in Pakistan and other countries.

"You have to create out of a diagnosis of the problem a common understanding and a common solution," he said. "Here in the United States, as overseas, interagency communications are often inadequate and programs are often not coordinated."

"The key thing about our process (MIP) is that we change people by having them identify needs, assess those needs and plan how to improve what they’re doing," Clyma said. "It’s true of both professionals from national or even international agencies and individual farmers from any country. If they don’t communicate adequately, then there’s no understanding and needed change isn’t accomplished."