PINETOP-LAKESIDE – Blue Ridge High School Junior, Ryan Flaherty, is designing the future in a way that you might not expect. He’s the mind behind the unique circuit board that is being tested in water catchment sensors throughout areas of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

How can a circuit board make a difference to thirsty wildlife in the forest? The answer comes down to efficiency and the amount of resources it takes to check water levels in the 70 to 80 water catchments in the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) Pinetop Region.

Resources like staff and volunteer time and wear and tear on the big trucks that haul water, not to mention fuel. The AZGFD along with many other volunteer organizations and agencies have driven thousands of miles per year, hauling millions of gallons of water to man-made catchments in the White Mountains.

To mitigate the cost of hauling water, the AZGFD has toyed with the idea of finding a way to monitor water catchment levels remotely. The idea moved from concept to conviction during brainstorming sessions between Steve Gouker of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension and Kevin Woolridge, Blue Ridge algebra/geometry and BR/UA 4-H Fab Lab teacher.

On Wednesday, AZGFD Biologist Dan Groebner, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Program Coordinator for 4-H Youth Development, and Flaherty, shared with the Society for Range Management how their prototype water catchment sensors operate.

Groebner pointed out that there were several critical partners in the project as well. They donated supplies, technology, time and expertise where needed. They include the Ace Hardware, Arizona Elk Society, Cellular One and White Mountain Communications.

U of A, AZGFD, Blue Ridge cooperate

for a solution

Gouker and Woolridge suggested the BR/UA 4-H Fab Lab class work on developing a way to measure water catchment levels remotely. “The lab is a space that promotes 21st century learning for youth and our community, says UA Cooperative Extension Youth Development Program Coordinator Meghan Penrod.

“I was in that class and took it on as my Capstone project,” says Flaherty. “The project just carried on after the class was over and Mr. Woolridge and the UA 4-H Fab Lab helped me move it forward into development.”

“Our … Fab Lab kids will be the ones to assemble all of the sensors ,” assures Penrod. “Eventually, they hope to be able to create and build all of the components in the Fab Lab.”

“This is a cool community project with kids creating circuit boards and really branching out into science technology engineering and math (STEM),” says University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Assistance Area Agent Josh Grace. “This is really applicable in range management because we still really are in a 20-year drought.”

Flaherty is, in a sense, leading the charge with the sensor technology because it’s his circuit board design that enables the entire apparatus. He’s also in charge of ordering the parts from overseas and then coordinating assembly.

As a result of his circuit board, the sensors are sophisticated enough to read catchment water levels, daily rain, hourly rain, humidity, temperature and projected refill date based on current conditions and transmits the data to AZGFD via cell phone.

Field testing

“The first sensors were housed in wooden boxes on top of water holding tanks,” explains Groebner. “After it snowed, there was a lot of moisture inside the tube so we had to build the metal casing and add holes to allow them to dry out. And, with the moisture from rain or snow, it’s hard to know exactly how long the batteries will last out in the field.”

Another challenge came as the elk “ripped up and destroyed five to seven sensors,” says Groebner. “It seems the elk really like our antennas for chew toys so we have to boost them up and protect them better.”

“And, we need to know how much data the sensors will use. We can make them go to sleep … so they aren’t constantly transmitting.”

“We’re still figuring out what our long-term costs will be without grants and/or donations. We’ll be looking for more partners and cooperators in the project.”

Future plans include elk-proofing the sensor antennas and exploring the use of satellite models so that data can be transmitted from areas without phone signal.

“Initially, we are developing the sensors for AZGFD, but we hope to develop and sell them to others as a fundraiser for the Fab Lab and to help pay for parts for more sensors,” says Groebner.

For more information about the Blue Ridge/UA 4-H Fab Lab water catchment sensors project, contact Meghan Penrod at or email

Reach the reporter at

Laura Singleton is a reporter for the White Mountain Independent, covering Show Low city government, business and education.

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