Jan. 13 2009 12:00 AM

As Stephen Smith assumes the presidency of the Irrigation Association, he realizes the challenges the irrigation industry currently faces. Pressure to reduce water consumption is building and landscape sustainability is the new buzzword. But Smith assumes this position with a background of invaluable experience and a wealth of knowledge of the irrigation industry.

Let’s start at the beginning. Smith was born in Clovis and grew up in Roswell, New Mexico. His parents were interior decorators and worked in the furniture business for 35 years. During his teenage years, he worked in the family business.

Smith attended New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, where he received his bachelor’s degree. He originally enrolled in its civil engineering program but was not enamored with the program and was frustrated with the large size of the classes, which led him to switch to agricultural engineering with an emphasis in soil, water and irrigation.

He had no intention of continuing on to graduate school, but 1973 was a difficult time to find a job, and his wife had finished her master’s degree, so they began looking around at schools with ag engineering programs. They chose Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, where he received his master’s degree with a concentration in irrigation.

While attending CSU, he worked for the university, doing EPAfunded research. The EPA costshared irrigation upgrades in the Grande Valley of Colorado and paid a major portion of the cost for farmers to convert from surface irrigation methods to drip or sprinkler on orchards and field crops.

“It was a great life-work experience,” said Smith. “We affected a lot of changeovers from surface irrigation to other more efficient irrigation methods. The farmers would at least listen to us about the benefits of drip irrigation or frost control sprinklers when we could put out money for the changes.”

By 1975, the Smiths realized how much they loved living in Ft. Collins and decided to make it their home. They formed Aqua Engineering and did irrigation design/build and whatever design work they could get. They designed some park irrigation, some drip irrigation for wind breaks, but tried to concentrate on residential design. In those days, you couldn’t make a living just designing so they did the installations as well. It was a period of strong growth both for the company and the expanding market.

About this time, they met a group that was actively working in the Middle East. For the next three years, Aqua Engineering helped design and build irrigation projects in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. “We gained valuable experience and added a wealth of irrigation understanding as well as working in the international markets,” added Smith. Doing the design work internationally helped them expand in the irrigation design profit center of the company.

By 1979, the Smiths decided that it was time to devote their energies purely to irrigation engineering. They sold the installation business.

An opportunity came along in 1983, and Aqua Engineering merged with EDAW, with Smith becoming a partner. EDAW had seven offices at that time, and Smith and his crew were supporting all the offices with irrigation designs. He stayed for four years.

New technology like CAD was coming on fast and furious. Smith saw opportunities using new techniques and technologies to develop new software to speed up the work using computer-aided sprinkler layout. The other principles didn’t share his enthusiasm, so when his contract was up, he left and reformed Aqua Engineering which now has 10 partners and a staff of 30. It is probably the largest irrigation design company nationwide. With his varied and extensive experience and knowledge, Smith is in a good position as he assumes the presidency of the Irrigation Association. He realizes the challenges he faces.

“Aside from the national economy, we’re facing troubled times in water sustainability,” said Smith. “From an ag standpoint as well as landscape irrigation. It’s important for those of us in the industry to be appreciative of what we bring to the party and the need to understand the value of irrigation.”

“The argument that’s broached by a number of people is that landscapes shouldn’t be irrigated, or just very minimally irrigated,” he said. “With due respect, some of the arguments are coming from those parts of the country that have copious amounts of annual rainfall. They feel the landscapes should survive off of natural precipitation.”

Smith continues, “Those people who make that argument generally aren’t familiar with the western part of the U.S., where we have seven to ten inches of rainfall annually. I’m not sure they realize the importance of irrigation to our surroundings and the aesthetics we enjoy.”

From the ag standpoint, we need to understand what a disproportionate amount of food is produced with irrigation as opposed to farming dry land depending on natural rainfall. We need to show the economic value of irrigation in an agricultural environment. Smith believes that a study should be commissioned that will help everyone understand the value of irrigation. He does feel that there is a need to be a bit more self policing within the industry.

“We have to understand our responsibility,” said Smith. “If a certain project is under development, then we know the water sources we have to use. If there is a drought event, we need to be able to match the irrigation water availability, irrigation methodology and the landscape plant palate,” he explained.

As one of the industry spokesmen, he feels the need to recognize the inherent flexibility that we have in irrigating landscapes. “Landscape irrigation can be tailored to water availability as a drought response mechanism.”

Smith is in a good position to see both the agricultural side as well as the landscape side of irrigation. He has designed and built both. Plus, his experience includes water rights, secondary supply systems, SCADA (central control), and canal modernization in urbanizing areas, all crossover technologies between landscape and agriculture projects.

During this next year, Smith hopes to bridge the gap between ag and landscape irrigation companies. “Many people think it’s two different industries, but it’s really not. It’s one industry. The underpinning of the technology is identical in either arena,” said Smith. What about the future? Smith is excited, but he sees new challenges for the industry. “A dramatic swing in the pendulum is causing us to move away from potable water to alternative sources,” says Smith. “Those sources are gray water, rain water harvesting, secondary (raw) supply and recycled water. In any project, let’s look at the water resource potential—what is the water source or a combination of water sources that are appropriate? Sometimes a project isn’t even possible if we don’t look at multiple sources and what the fall-back position is when there is a drought circumstance that requires that we shift gears a bit.”

Married to Mary Lou for 38 years, the Smiths have two children. They live in Larimer County, close to Ft. Collins, on a 35-acre farm. While Smith has been interested in photography since high school, his first love is hunting and fishing.

Stephen Smith’s experience both in agriculture and landscape irrigation make him the perfect guy, and it’s the perfect time to help transition the Irrigation Association to the next level.