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Success Story

Getting WaterSMART in Malad City


Learn more about how Malad City, Idaho are improving their water efficiency through the EQIP WaterSMART program. 

In Malad City, Idaho, as the frost begins to break in late April, the hiss of pivots rings through the valley. The irrigation season has begun, supported by a brand-new pipeline system, connecting 40 producers to water more efficiently than ever before. 

ditch erosion
Streambank erosion in Malad City, ID before replaced with a pipeline. 

The pipeline’s journey began in 2014, when then-President of the St. John Irrigation Company Ron Blaisedell began discussing converting more than eight miles of open ditches to a pipeline. Producers and landowners had observed leakage from the ditch in the past, with their water shares not going nearly as far as they had hoped they would. These

observations, while meaningful, were only the first step in the process. To help decide whether a pipeline was the right choice for the community, Blaisedell enlisted the help of Utah State University’s College of Engineering. “In 2014, we put together a feasibility study. Utah State donated their time with their engineering department and did a study for us,” explained Blaisedell. The study’s findings were simple – “a lot of water loss from the ditches,” said Blaisedell. Utah State University confirmed what landowners had already observed – the open ditch system was not going to work much longer. This study was what the leadership of the St. John Irrigation Company needed to begin asking for votes in favor of seeking funding for a pipeline conversion. In addition, the Daniels Reservoir, which supplies the irrigation water to the St. John Irrigation Company, rarely fills to 100 percent capacity. To ensure there would be enough water to irrigate each year, something needed to change.  

After discussions, meetings and stakeholder votes, Blaisedell and his team applied for a WaterSMART Grant through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation). WaterSMART Grants provide financial assistance to water management entities for projects that seek to use water more efficiently. The St. John Irrigation District was awarded their WaterSMART Grant through Reclamation in 2015, and they proceeded with converting all the proposed eight miles of open ditch to pipe, almost eliminating the water losses from the old system.                                                                                                                                         

Once the Irrigation Company’s pipeline was under way, farmers and ranchers of Malad were eager to utilize the new pipeline on their operation. Five landowners on the West side of town, covering approximately 500 acres of farmland, decided to convert their offshoot irrigation lateral to a system of pipelines. This type of large-scale project can be cost-prohibitive for individual landowners, so that is when the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Malad got involved.  

In 2017, NRCS Idaho utilized a non-traditional funding method for projects like this lateral ditch-to-pipeline conversion through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). EQIP Special Projects, as they were called, were used to fund projects that might not have fit under any other NRCS financial assistance formula. The District Conservationist at the time Laren Nalder, now Conservation Team Lead for the Lake Bonneville Conservation Team based out of Malad, submitted a proposal on behalf of the five interested landowners to fund the pipe conversion, as well as install more efficient on-farm irrigation systems and eliminate or reduce the need for landowners in the area to utilize expensive irrigation pumps. The EQIP Special Project for the Sandridge Lateral was funded in full, and construction promptly began.  

More than two miles of open ditch were converted to 18-inch pipe, all but eliminating the leakage and water loss that had previously occurred. In addition to this pipeline, the EQIP Special Project included plans to assist the five included landowners with converting their irrigation systems to a more efficient method. The landowners in Malad chose to convert their traditional flood irrigation systems to center pivot irrigation.  


A unique aspect of the pivots installed for the Sandridge lateral, and all the subsequent laterals, is that they are gravity-fed. This means the pivots do not require any electric pumps to move water from the pipeline to the irrigation system. Gravity-fed systems provide significant cost savings to landowners. Tom Williams, a participant in the third phase of the overall Malad ditch-to-pipe conversion, explained the cost savings, saying, “I can power my [gravity-fed] pivot for just $90 to $110 a month, where I used to be close to $3,000 when I was pumping full time.” That’s a 97 percent drop in his electric costs each month. 

On top of transforming the way landowners irrigate their operation, the landowners and the St. John Irrigation Company were able to install flowmeters onto each lateral outlet. This allows the Company to monitor how much water each user was using, ensuring each shareholder received the appropriate amount of water as described by their water shares. These flowmeters also provide the proof of how much more efficient these new systems are. This efficiency is essential during times of drought, which happen with regularity in the Intermountain West. 

After a successful first phase with the Sandridge lateral, more landowners expressed interest in tapping into the St. John Irrigation Company’s pipeline and in improving their irrigation systems. To move forward with more projects and more landowners, Nalder turned to the EQIP WaterSMART Initiative (WSI) as a better option to get the work done. EQIP WSI offers targeted funds to landowners in a specific area for projects that increase irrigation efficiency and decreases surface water depletion. EQIP WSI is designed to complement the initial Reclamation WaterSMART projects by providing individual landowners opportunities to improve the overall water conservation and drought resilience of their community. Through EQIP WSI, landowners are able to decrease water and soil lost from the irrigation process and maximize their bottom line by capturing energy and water savings with their irrigation systems.  

Nalder submitted a project proposal for each subsequent phase of the pipeline, getting landowners and partners involved along the way. In total, there have been four pipelines built affecting 40 customers. Each has seen tremendous savings in water, labor and electricity. The new lateral system saves approximately 1,554 acre-feet of water from going unutilized each year. Loyd Briggs, the current Treasurer of the St. John Irrigation Company, explained, “We've enjoyed in the savings, I think an immense savings. It's been an immense difference for us. We were able to properly irrigate, and it's been adequate to produce the crops we need to.”  

This project has been successful in not only the number of producers who have been affected, but in the amount of water and sediment that has been saved as a result. Nalder noted that WaterSMART projects like the St. John’s Lateral help ensure that even when Idaho’s snow season is below normal, that there can be enough carry over in reservoirs like Daniels thanks to the water conservation they make possible. 

St. John Irrigation Company has been supporting Malad producers for more than a century, and these improvements will help sustain the agricultural opportunities in the valley for future generations. Briggs explained, “this company was created back in the late 1800s, so it's been in existence for a long time. I'd feel pretty bad if we ruined what they had.”