University of Idaho - I Banner
A student works at a computer


U of I's web-based retention and advising tool provides an efficient way to guide and support students on their road to graduation. Login to VandalStar.

Heightened Water Focus

April 17, 2024

University of Idaho is stepping up its research and outreach efforts to help maximize the use of one of the state’s most precious natural resources — its water supply.

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) has made some recent hires to bolster its team of water experts and is seeking to fill additional positions to help address critical issues in the water-constrained West.

Idaho has 3.4 million acres of irrigated cropland, and 86% of water withdrawn in the state is used for agricultural purposes.

The state Legislature and Gov. Brad Little recently authorized the college to hire an irrigation Extension specialist, who will be based in southern Idaho.

“The state is the third largest irrigator in the nation right after California and Texas,” said Robert Heinse, acting head of the Department of Soil and Water Systems. “An irrigation specialist is important in a state like this.”

The position will educate growers, fieldmen and students on the design and function of sustainable, data-driven irrigation and water management systems and practices. The search will begin soon.

The college’s previous Extension irrigation specialist, Howard Neibling, who retired in March of 2022, helped innovate an irrigation system known as low elevation sprinkler application (LESA), which uses hoses on pivots to dangle spray nozzles beneath the crop canopy, thereby reducing water drift and evaporation.

“The expectation is whoever gets hired in this position will continue efforts to work towards irrigation efficiency and water-use efficiency and be the connector of what research can do and technology can do in terms of variable application rates and relay the information to the growers out there,” Heinse said.

CALS has hired Meetpal Kukal, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering with Penn State University, as a new water modeler within the Department of Soil and Water Systems. Kukal will be based in Boise and will start work in August, filling the position vacated when Richard Allen retired in 2022.

Allen did groundbreaking research in the use of satellite remote sensing to quantify evapotranspiration from crops. He also incorporated remote-sensing data into modeling, which provided a tool to aid the Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR) in water budgets and groundwater modeling.

“Before Dr. Richard Allen’s retirement, his research group at the University of Idaho Kimberly Research and Extension Center collaborated with IDWR for many years to innovate state-of-the-art methods for quantifying evapotranspiration,” said Phil Blankenau, an evapotranspiration analyst with IDWR. “The university’s newly hired assistant professor, Dr. Meetpal Kukal, brings expertise in agricultural evapotranspiration and evapotranspiration measurement techniques. Dr. Kukal will be a valuable resource for IDWR.”

Heinse believes the addition of Kukal and the future irrigation specialist will elevate the university’s standing as a major contributor of water and irrigation science, bringing it closer to President Scott Green’s goal of establishing U of I as the “University of Water.”

“The expectation is these two positions will work together and there’s going to be synergies between the Extension irrigation piece and the research irrigation piece,” Heinse said.

CALS has also hired Christa Howarth as a new assistant Extension water educator based in Boise. Howarth, who earned a master’s degree in environmental science through U of I’s McCall Outdoor Science School, started on March 4.

Howarth will teach Project Wet, a program that trains teachers to incorporate lessons in water into their curriculum. Howarth will also facilitate the IDAH2O Master Water Stewards program, which tasks volunteers with monitoring water quality of streams and ponds. The position will be funded for the first year with part of a $650,000 National Science Foundation Accelerator grant, awarded jointly to Boise State University and U of I.

Howarth aims to start a Treasure Valley version of the Confluence Project, which is a northern Idaho program that has high school students study water quality in the field with experts.

“As part of the grant we are actively interviewing stakeholders and end users in order to understand water education needs in the Treasure Valley so we can tailor my Extension position toward meeting those needs,” Howarth said.

U of I is also searching for a new director for its Idaho Water Resources Research Institute (IWRRI), which is among the nation’s 54 water research and technology centers. IWRRI conducts and directs research in support of the water needs of the state, region and nation.

Jim Ekins, area water Extension educator based in Coeur d’Alene, is working on a project that should expand the influence of U of I’s new water personnel. Ekins serves on the leadership team of the Western Water Network, which is being developed by the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Directors to help institutions share water expertise and collaborate on projects.

“We are trying to develop a network of experts realizing there are very few water educators in Extension and there’s a great need for research and extension related to water,” Ekins said. “We are going to try to leverage our resources related to water.”

To some degree, most CALS initiatives involve using the state’s water resources as efficiently as possible. For example, water conservation and water delivery are central themes of both the Innovative Agriculture and Marketing Partnership (IAMP), which is a $55 million grant CALS researchers received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study climate-smart agricultural production practices, and in the soil health demonstration farm, which is part of the Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Idaho CAFE). Idaho CAFE, based in Rupert, will include the nation’s largest research dairy, and the demonstration farm will facilitate studies on the relationship between application of dairy nutrients and soil health and water quality.

Furthermore, the university-run Aquaculture Research Institute, which has facilities in Moscow and Hagerman, promotes science benefiting native fish populations, and maintaining adequate river flows and water quality is central in that mission.

“We’re a player in water at many levels,” said CALS Dean Michael Parrella. “Eventually, everything revolves around water and water-use efficiency.”

Published in Catching Up with CALS

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences hiring water experts to help address critical water issues.

About the University of Idaho

The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, U of I serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, nine research and Extension centers, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to nearly 11,000 students statewide, U of I is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. U of I competes in the Big Sky and Western Athletic conferences. Learn more at


University Communications and Marketing

Fax: 208-885-5841


Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts