A Utah State University water management project that has spanned 10 years and 35 countries has been officially completed.

At $8 million, the Water Management Synthesis Project has been one of the biggest at USU, with the exception of some space engineering projects, said Jack Keller, professor of agricultural and irrigation engineering. The project concluded in March with an end-of-project seminar in Washington, D.C.Keller directed USU's part of the project, which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

About 50 USU engineers, agronomists, soil scientists, economists, geographers and sociologists participated, providing a "holistic" approach to irrigation development, Keller said.

Field work was done in Africa, Asia and the Near East, Central and South America.

Colorado State University worked with USU on the project, and Cornell University joined for the last six years.

Keller said the goal was to "develop and disseminate efficient water management technology and practices, contributing to increased agricultural production and rural equity in developing countries."

The Water Management Synthesis philosophy involves dealing with the sociological as well as technical and economical issues of irrigated agriculture.

"In the project, we were often asked to help improve existing systems and instead of diagnosing them as though they were `sick,' we developed a kind of `coaching' approach," Keller said.

"We identified positive parts, parts that were working well, and tried to get the whole system working that way. Systems that may not have looked good to me as an engineer were functioning, and we worked to make them function better. We involved the people they did what they wanted and could do themselves."

A project in the Peruvian highlands was managed by agricultural and irrigation engineer Kern Stutler and agronomist David James. The crew concentrated on small farms of less than an acre to three acres, developing better cropping practices and more effective irrigation on the steep slopes.

Effective use of the system doubled the arable land, Keller said.

"In Peru," said sociologist Mark Lusk, "we were trying to support small-scale irrigation in the Andes." He said most investment had been toward irrigating the desert coast land, supporting large-scale users. Small farmers in the mountains were functioning at a subsistence level.

"We demonstrated that small-scale irrigation can be an effective way of minimizing farmer risks due to drought. By securing the food supply in the mountains, we can accomplish a lot of things at the same time improve the standard of living of the farmers, stem the tide of migration to urban areas and improve the country's food security. Everyone benefits."

The program trained local people to maintain and manage systems and trained them to train others. Government officials were also educated about the programs.

"We've helped to minimize breakdown occur when one or another of the players fails to perform a certain function," Lusk said. "For instance, farmers failing to maintain ditches, or bureaucrats failing to schedule water fairly. The challenge from a social science point of view was to make it profitable, efficient, effective and equitable."

The project has yielded many other benefits that can be used in future programs, including guidelines for diagnosing irrigation needs and potential, using the "coaching approach" and a major computer program to help manage water flows and deliveries in large-scale irrigation systems.

A dozen USU students received master's and doctorate degrees working on the project. Other products of the project are special reports, professional papers, brochures, handbooks, manuals, planning guides, training videotapes, slide shows and international conferences.

The project was responsible for the formation of USU's International Irrigation Center, directed by Gaylord Skogerboe, and many USU professionals are continuing to work on other irrigation projects around the world, Keller said.

Keller recently received the Utah Governor's Medal for Science and Technology and was named Utah Engineer of the Year by the Utah section of the National Society for Professional Engineers. Last year he was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest professional distinction an engineer can receive.