Featured,  Interview

Arizona’s Practitioner-Led Water Management Program

In the desert states of the American Southwest, water management is a challenge and an art. Municipalities, irrigation districts, builders, attorneys, and policymakers must all be intimately familiar with the full spectrum of water-related challenges they may face.

In Arizona, the Agribusiness & Water Council of Arizona (ABWC) and Arizona State University’s Fulton Schools of Engineering and Morrison School of Agribusiness have combined forces to create the Water Management Certificate Program. The program was developed in 2011 and welcomed its first class in 2013. Its aim is to train both established professionals and master’s-level students seeking to enter the water industry, and in so doing, establish connections among all who take part.

In this interview with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill, the Agribusiness & Water Council’s executive director, Chris Udall, and three members of its executive committee, George Fletcher, Larry Olson, and Bill Plummer, discuss the Certificate Program’s history, its special features, and its goals and accomplishments.

Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you ended up in your current positions at the program.

Bill Plummer: I have a long history in water resources. I started with the Bureau of Reclamation in Yuma, Arizona, and after that worked in Washington, DC, at the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Secretary of the Interior. Then I went back to the field with the Bureau of Reclamation as regional director in Salt Lake City and later in Boulder City. After leaving Reclamation, I consulted in water resources in Arizona and internationally in South and Southeast Asia. In between, I joined the Arizona Department of Water Resources as director and later as manager of Yuma Mesa Irrigation and Drainage District. I serve as the coordinator for the ABWC program.

I got involved in the Water Management Certificate Program a number of years ago after Richard Morrison, a member of the ABWC executive committee who had been promoting a program such as this for years, invited me to work with Arizona State University (ASU) to develop a management program for people in the water resources industry. It was to be taught not by academics but by practitioners in the field who had substantial experience in managing and operating water resources projects and related programs. A team of dedicated ABWC executive committee members developed a 9-month program that covered water management issues, including planning, operations, construction, communications, and management and legislative issues. Initially, the intention was to train managers for irrigation districts, but the focus has expanded since then.

In addition to irrigation-district personnel, we have a substantial number of students from the municipal sector, mostly in water conservation programs and agribusiness, attorneys professionals from environmental organizations, and consultants. Most of our students are from Arizona, though we have had students from New Mexico and California as well.

Larry Olson: I am a professor at ASU and the program chair for the Environmental and Resource Management Program at ASU’s Fulton Schools of Engineering. The Fulton Schools of Engineering, along with the ABWC and ASU’s Morrison School of Agribusiness, is one of the three organizations that certify the graduates of this program.

The majority of the students in the program are working professionals who are not taking the program for academic credit, but the program does include students from ASU who are taking it for credit. Most of those students are in my program, the Environmental and Resource Management Program, which is a master’s degree program with a concentration in water resources management. This program is part of the curriculum for that degree program.

The student body is an interesting mix. Many of the participants have had a wide variety of experiences in irrigation districts; the Bureau of Reclamation; and municipal organizations including the Salt River Project and the Central Arizona, Project. We’ve had students from the Nature Conservancy. We’ve also had a state legislator complete the program. The student body also includes ASU students who want to make this their career. Participation in this program allows them to work together with these working professionals for 9 months and to get to know them well.

Our students are exposed to an amazing group of instructors. Each year, we engage a couple dozen instructors from a cadre of 40 or 50. Visiting presenters have included former United States Senator Jon Kyl; U.S. Representative John Shadegg; and Rusty Bowers, the current speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, as well as other state legislators and high-ranking people from various organizations. It’s a tremendous educational experience.

Additionally, because we have a degree program available, some of our students are working full time and are interested in advancing their careers through a master’s degree from ASU.

Chris Udall: I’ve been with ABWC for 14 years. I was formerly a congressional staffer for two different Arizona congressmen in Washington, DC, for 10 years. As the executive director of ABWC, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many knowledgeable executive committee members; it was those members who came up with the content for this program. As Bill and Larry stated, it began as a program to train the next generation of irrigation district managers and evolved into a much larger program covering many other fields. My primary role in the program is to be a facilitator, although I do some teaching as well.

Testimonials we’ve received from our alumni say that the program has saved their districts thousands of dollars. One student said that learning from our instructors was like learning the Ten Commandments from Moses. The program has expanded well through good planning and word of mouth. Those who have been in it say that they’ve really benefitted. Some have stated that they are interested in taking the program again.

George Fletcher: I am the owner and principal consultant of Replenishment Services, LLC, a water resources consulting firm, where I have been working since 2006. My career began in 1980, about 3 months prior to the passage of the Arizona Groundwater Management Act (GMA), so I’ve had the opportunity to learn about water law in an administrative agency since the very beginning of the implementation of the code. I worked in the water rights adjudication program at the Arizona Department of Water Resources and helped develop the investigative and reporting processes that the department uses to support the courts. After that, I went to work for an international consulting firm, trying to establish a water rights practice. Subsequently, I was hired by a law firm to help support client work and to help train incoming attorneys on the new GMA. I was hired by a smaller community in the western Phoenix metro area, and later hired by the City of Tempe, where I spent 10 years as the city’s first full-time water resources manager. I helped establish Tempe’s first comprehensive water resources and water conservation plan, helping the city comply with the provisions of the GMA and deliver water to special projects, including the Tempe town lake. After that, I went back into consulting and worked for another consulting firm for a time, which was quite well known in the West for its involvement with portions of the Central Arizona Project. That firm was sold a few times, and I eventually opened my own consulting practice where I currently provide water resources expertise to clients in all water use sectors.

I was asked in 2017 to become an instructor in the graduate program at ASU in the newly developed water resources concentration. I now teach a class on water law and policy every spring to master’s and doctoral degree candidates.

With regard to this particular certificate program, I served on the committee that helped launch it, and I work closely with Bill and other program committee members to keep things going forward. I teach groundwater and surface water law, intergovernmental communications, local government, and contracting with consultants as part of the program. Ialso touch on water law in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and California for students who are from those states or who wish to know the rules of the game there.

Joshua Dill: What is the format of the program and what is its curriculum?

Bill Plummer: It is a 9-month program, beginning in September. The program meets once a month on a Friday afternoon and the following Satruday. The classes are taught by practitioners, and in the congressional liaison portion, congressmen. We’ve had occasional field trips: This year, we went to the City of Scottsdale’s Water Campus, where participants saw how wastewater is reclaimed and how it is used.

At the end of the program, we divide the students into teams, each of which selects and analyzes a water-related issue and presents its analysis just prior to graduation. It’s an opportunity for team members to work together and delve deeper into a relevant and current issue.

Last year, more than half the students did not miss any classes. The students are responsible about coming to the classes in person, which we prefer, because we feel that the interaction among students and instructors is important and helps make our program a success.

Larry Olson: We teach the class in a TV studio at the ASU Polytechnic campus in Mesa, Arizona, so all the classes are recorded and are accessible later on; they can also be watched live online by students who are not able to attend. This is especially helpful for students from New Mexico and California who are not always able to be there in person. They can log in and follow the class live and even ask questions and interact in real time.

One other outside activity we’ve scheduled is a visit and briefing at the Arizona State Legislature. That way the students get a sense of how bills are processed and how the legislature works. As mentioned, one state legislator has graduated from the program. She has been helpful in describing the program to others.

Joshua Dill: How many participants are there and how are they selected?

Larry Olson: They have to apply. The ABWC is used as our coordinating group. The application materials include a statement of intent, in which the applicant describes their background and explains why they want to take the class. Unless the applicant is taking the class for academic credit, they do not need to apply to ASU at all; those who are taking it for credit have to be ASU students and have to go through a formal application process. However, the course is not open to just anyone at ASU—it’s an instructor-approval course. We’re basically selecting students who want to be water management professionals. One of the goals is to try to make sure that the preponderance of the students in the class are working professionals. Usually it’s about two-thirds working professionals and one-third ASU students. We’ve had varying numbers. There are usually 20–25 total participants.

Joshua Dill: What sets this program apart from similar programs in other states?

Bill Plummer: Some programs are organized more toward leadership in general, perhaps with an emphasis on policy. Generally speaking, our program is different because it mostly uses practitioners as instructors and focuses on practical activity.

Larry Olson: Another special thing about our program is that a lot of the instructors are actually the people who developed the policies and regulations and have experience in the implementation of the GMA, the Central Arizona Project, Indian water rights settlements, and other major initiatives. The students are actually learning from people who were at the table when these decisions were made and are currently at the table for the development of the Drought Contingency Plan and other similar policies. These are people who are involved in Arizona-specific and regional water issues.

Joshua Dill: What is the most helpful thing that participants learn? What do they learn here that they might not get elsewhere?

Bill Plummer: Quite a few of these students are in the field already. There’s not much opportunity for them to receive instruction that pertains to what they’re doing other than on-the-job training. Being able to mingle with and learn with other students from different backgrounds in a classroom setting provides that opportunity. In a class with people from five or six different disciplines, all of whom have different job titles, that information and knowledge is exchanged. The students learn the disciplines they may need to go to if they have a problem. That is one of the most valuable components of the program: knowing the types of organizations and people that can help you solve a problem.

George Fletcher: Another thing they gain from this coursework and these relationships is a good understanding of the challenges that other water use sectors might be facing. In the water arena, we are frequently involved in collaborative projects or negotiations in which multiple sectors are represented, like those dealing with the Colorado River. The hope is that this course helps prepare these practitioners for the challenges they may face in the future and to inform them about what other people at the table might be facing.

Chris Udall: The students come away with a big-picture view of the water arena in Arizona and how it relates to what’s going on in neighboring states. They may not get that on the job, which may be more tightly focused.

Joshua Dill: Who are your alumni, and do they stay involved in the program after they have completed it?

Bill Plummer: Some of the students come back to teach, particularly those who have a few years of experience behind them. It’s also amazing how many of our graduates are seen at regional meetings on water resources matters. We just gathered for the Colorado River Water Users Association conference in Las Vegas, and there were at least a dozen people who had completed our program.

Chris Udall: Often it’s the people who you hadn’t seen before. After attending this program, they have more knowledge and have a network, and are advancing and becoming great leaders.

Joshua Dill: What is your vision for the future of the program?

Bill Plummer: My belief is that the program should continue in this format. As Larry said, we choose instructors from the agencies and entities that have been involved in major issues. Those issues are still timely. As we move forward, I don’t see us having larger classes, but we will strive to have our students fully engaged. At the beginning, I think the students were reluctant to get involved, but that has changed dramatically. It has been a real pleasure to work with them. Some offer their own insights, they have good questions, and they’re learning. Last year, after our trip to the City of Scottsdale’s Water Campus, where there is a complicated, advanced system for the treatment of wastewater, I decided to give the students a quiz on the field trip. I was astounded by the results: Our students got every answer correct.

Issues are changing everywhere, and we will need problem solvers. I hope that the graduates of our program will be part of solving those problems, now and in the future.

Larry Olson: One thing we might be able to accomplish is to raise more funding for scholarships. There are people who have expressed interest in the program, but the tuition is a problem for them. Not everyone can get their company or organization to pay for it.

We’re also looking to involve more legislators as students. Many legislators are now having to grapple with water issues, and they don’t necessarily have the depth of understanding they need. It would be great to be able to bring more legislators into the program.

Bill Plummer: Legislators may not need to be involved in the entire program either. We’ve discussed the possibility of dividing the class into modules. People may only want to learn about water law or communications. If we develop the right kind of module, it could be possible for legislators to be involved in the program at a reduced cost and with a reduced time commitment.

George Fletcher: The value of this course for the money invested is incredible. There are a lot of private entities and organizations that offer training in water law or another single subject, but I don’t know of any organization that has the comprehensive coverage that this course provides. The instructors involved are excellent. The course provides incredible value, both in terms of knowledge gained and the potential for advancement.

Bill Plummer: In summary, we believe we have a very successful program. This impression has been reinforced by comments from alumni and the fact that several water- centered organizations believe in the value of the program and continue to send us students.

For more information about the Water Management Certificate Program, visit the Agribusiness & Water Council of Arizona’s website at www.agribusinessarizona.org. You can contact ABWC at (480) 558-5301 or info@agribusinessarizona.org.