Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

A Cultural Exchange Between Washington State and New Zealand

One member of the Irrigation Leader tour in New Zealand was Phil Rigdon, the superintendent of the Yakama Nation’s Department of Natural Resources, which oversees 17 different programs that cover fisheries, water, forestry, and environmental protection. While New Zealand is half a world away from the Yakima Valley, it has many commonalities, from the need to balance water use among fish, environmental needs, and agriculture to the need for water storage structures on irrigation districts. During the tour, Mr. Rigdon was also able to take part in a cultural exchange with members of the indigenous Māori people prior to the larger group visiting their community. In this interview, Mr. Rigdon expands on what he saw in New Zealand and the lessons he is taking back to Washington State.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and your position.

Phil Rigdon: I am the superintendent of the Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources. I oversee about 17 programs of the tribe, including water, fisheries, forestry, wildlife, and a few other things.

Irrigation Leader: You were a member of the recent Irrigation Leader tour in New Zealand. Would you tell us why you decided to go on the trip?

Phil Rigdon: The chance to go to New Zealand is an enormous opportunity. On the Yakama Reservation, we have the Wapato Irrigation Project (WIP). We’ve got a

hil Rigdon presents to tour participants on the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

modernization plan and a conservation plan, and we’re trying to put a lot of resources toward those things. Seeing some of the same types of things going on in New Zealand was interesting, and it was great to see some of the irrigation projects and what they’re doing with groundwater recharge. It was also good to meet a bunch of great folks. It was pretty cool just to be able to go and see such an amazing land. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us some of your observations of the water storage and irrigation infrastructure you saw?

Phil Rigdon: What really impressed me was how state of the art their irrigation systems are. Just a handful of people can manage entire irrigation projects. Some monitor the systems on a screen while others are out there working with farmers and helping make sure things are being delivered right. The smaller storage structures they’ve built to help meet some of their needs was an important part of how they manage their system. I think it could be a really useful tool for what I see here on the reservation. In addition, my background is in forestry, and I’ve never seen trees planted on such steep slopes and such straight lines, which was pretty interesting.

Irrigation Leader: What did you see that you think might be applicable in Washington State?

Phil Rigdon: We’re looking at storage in eastern Washington, so some of the presentations we saw in New Zealand were in line with what we’re trying to do. There is a focus on balancing fish and farming needs, so there are a lot of commonalities with our situation, too.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the off-stream storage ponds that you saw in New Zealand?

Phil Rigdon: That was one of the things I think could really help on the WIP and in the Yakima basin as a whole—using smaller storage structures to help meet needs throughout the year. I think that needs to be part of our conversation on how to move forward.

Irrigation Leader: Were those structures also used for groundwater recharge, or did they use separate facilities for that?

Phil Rigdon: They had separate facilities for the groundwater recharge. Their approach to groundwater recharge and to nitrogen mitigation was interesting. The tour was useful in addressing some of those challenging issues that we have here today.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your visit to a Māori community in New Zealand?

Phil Rigdon: I come from the Yakama Nation and I’m a member of the Yakama Tribe, and I took part in a cultural exchange with the Māori community. I brought some gifts for the Māori people, they sang a song to welcome me, and I did the same to thank them for the opportunity to visit their lands and thank their ancestors. It was a beautiful ceremony. They deal with a lot of the same environmental issues that the Yakama Nation deals with all the time—striking a balance between having a farm and making sure that the natural food and medicines are taken care of in a good manner. It is a challenge to time the water so that it is available for fish, food, and agriculture. Those things are also being displaced and altered, so they are trying to save certain natural areas. I had a great conversation with them, and it was a great opportunity to be part of an exchange.

Off-stream storage on the MHV Water scheme.

Irrigation Leader: What was your impression of the relationship between the Māori community and the local, regional, and national governments in New Zealand? Did you see commonalities with the situation with the Yakama Nation?

Phil Rigdon: In a lot of ways, their situation is distinct. The Yakama Nation has had a longer history of treaties and court cases with the U.S. federal government. I think their relationship is still maturing and they are still determining their future. On the other hand, the Māori economy is robust and is a big part of New Zealand’s economy. That is quite different: They haven’t been left behind; they’re part of New Zealand’s economy. That was really interesting to see.

Irrigation Leader: What were some of the highlights of the trip for you, and was there anything that was especially unexpected?

Phil Rigdon: One of the coolest things was the opportunity to see salmon fishing in New Zealand. Also, I never imagined that I would see deer being milked; I was just fascinated. The exchange with the Māori was certainly a highlight; the gift exchange that we had is something that I will cherish forever. The jet boat ride was one of the other coolest things—anybody who likes a little adrenaline should try it some time.

Irrigation Leader: What should people in Washington State and in the Yakima and Columbia River basins know about agriculture and irrigation in New Zealand?

Phil Rigdon: In New Zealand today, the indigenous people, the Māori, are part of the greater community. I think the same thing is true in the Yakima Valley and the Columbia basin. As we move forward, how do we break down some of the barriers to find commonalities and help both of our communities be successful? I thought that was a really important part of the discussions and talks that we had during the trip. 

Phil Rigdon is the superintendent of the Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at phil_rigdon@yakama.com.