Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Daren Coon: Insights From a Career at NMID

Nampa & Meridian Irrigation District (NMID) is the largest irrigation district in Idaho, covering 69,000 acres and serving 100,000 water users. Over recent decades, its area has undergone a dramatic process of urbanization, necessitating the construction of a pressure urban irrigation system. It also went through the title transfer process with the Bureau of Reclamation during the 1980s and 1990s, acquiring title to its infrastructure and helping to shape the title transfer process along the way.

In this interview, outgoing NMID Secretary-Treasurer and Secretary of the Board Daren Coon takes a look back at his long career at the district and provides us with the insights he has gained along the way.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Daren Coon: I was born and raised on a small farm near one of the irrigation districts’ operation and maintenance (O&M) facilities. I was educated in Idaho, except for a short period of time in Portland, Oregon. I studied physics, political science, and psychology. In Portland, I spent some time in law school. I came back to Idaho looking for work and ended up with a job at the irrigation district in 1976. I held various positions within the district’s offices until 1989, when I was appointed to the positions of secretary-treasurer and secretary of the board. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about NMID’s history.

Daren Coon: The district’s predecessors were a series of canal companies that weren’t successful in gaining financial supporters from the East. Every time a new canal company, person, or corporation would purchase the canals in the hopes of bringing irrigation water to the valley, they would suffer under the volatility of the economy and go broke. The folks who were living in the valley at the time recognized the need for an irrigation district that could secure financing for the O&M and expansion of the system. The local residents seized the moment in 1904 and purchased the canal system and the water rights for the irrigation district. Its primary water right in the beginning was a riparian, or river, right. Subsequently, by contract with the U.S. Reclamation Service, Arrowrock Dam was built in 1915. Anderson Ranch Dam and Reservoir were completed in the late 1940s. They stored water to complement the district’s natural flow.

Irrigation Leader: Is the district still primarily served by surface water?

The Ridenbaugh Canal check structure in use in July 2019.

Daren Coon: All the district’s water rights are surface rights; it has no groundwater rights. Typically, there’s a sufficient amount of water each year—not a generous amount, but enough to deliver to the water users for an adequate growing season. We deliver approximately 200,000 acre-feet of water per year, which is a combination of natural flow and surface rights.

Irrigation Leader: How big is the district’s service area?

Daren Coon: 69,000 acres. Our current water right allows us to deliver to 64,000 acres. It’s the largest irrigation district in the state of Idaho. We have nearly 100,000 water users.

Irrigation Leader: What are the main irrigated crops in your district?

Daren Coon: Agriculture is not the focus of the district to the extent it was when I came to work here, but the relatively small amount of farmland left is dedicated to crops like sugar beets, corn, wheat, and alfalfa.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the process of urbanization that your district is undergoing.

Daren Coon: Urbanization has been going on since the creation of this district. Even at that time, this valley was the most populous area in the state. The irrigation district recognized from the beginning that it was necessary to provide irrigation water to even small tract owners so that they could irrigate their lawns and gardens. In the early 1900s, it was possible for people to gain enough revenue off a 40-acre farm to raise a family. Obviously, that’s not the case today. The district recognizes the need to provide irrigation water to all lands irrespective of what folks are going to be irrigating.

Irrigation Leader: What are the district’s top issues today?

Daren Coon: Keeping up with urban growth. This is one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States. The preservation of the irrigation and drainage systems is extremely important. We also need to defend the district’s water rights and the right to deliver irrigation water without encumbrance. Sometimes people seem to think that water is best left in the river system, not diverted. However, we are able to educate them that irrigation is a nonconsumptive use of water that benefits people, the economy, and the ecology of the river. Most of the water is actually returned to the river through the drainage system.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about how the district decided to move into the area of pressure urban irrigation systems?

Daren Coon: The process began in the late 1980s, when there was an enormous spurt in urban development. Many newcomers wanted to access irrigation water in the new subdivisions, but there was no way to compel land developers to install adequate urban irrigation systems. Exclusion, a legal process whereby water rights are removed from the land, thus exempting landowners from the obligation to pay the O&M costs for irrigation, was occurring at an extraordinary pace. This was not acceptable: If something wasn’t done to reduce the amount of excluded acreage, the district could not continue to function, and the loss of water use in the valley would mean devastation. The district went to the legislature and persuaded it to pass laws that allowed the district to enter into construction contracts with developers for the purpose of installing pressure irrigation systems and transferring the ownership and O&M responsibilities to the irrigation district for the benefit of the property owners. As part of that legislative process, we also asked for a local improvement district statute that would allow NMID to arrange for the financing of the installation of a pressure system in existing subdivisions where no viable delivery system existed and to establish a reasonable repayment plan for the landowners.

Pressure urban irrigation systems have their own distinctive cost features, and the lands that benefit from the pressure systems pay these additional expenses. One benefit is that the irrigation district can deliver irrigation water to the land less expensively than a potable water purveyor could. Also, by using the available surface water rights, we reduce the stress on groundwater, which can then be used for households. Today, NMID’s pressure urban irrigation system directly services over 10,000 tracts of land; NMID also has contracts with four municipal irrigation districts (the cities that lie within NMID’s borders) to supply approximately 10,000 additional acres with its pressure systems. I believe that the construction of pressure urban irrigation systems was one of the single largest projects the district has undertaken since the construction of the Anderson Ranch Dam.

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your experience with title transfer?

Daren Coon: In the 1980s, Reclamation began to insinuate itself in the O&M of drainage systems. Some of NMID’s drains had been constructed by Reclamation around 1915 and had been transferred to the district for O&M only, meaning that NMID had not dealt with Reclamation in decades. Reclamation’s renewed attempt to involve itself in the O&M process was counterproductive. In discussions with Reclamation, we decided that title transfer would be best for both parties. We found that local Reclamation representatives were sometimes less supportive than those in Washington, DC, but we were able to demonstrate that we had successfully operated and maintained our facilities from the early 20th century until the 1980s with no documented intervention by or involvement of Reclamation. The title transfer process took several years, and complete transfer of all interest asserted by Reclamation in NMID’s infrastructure was accomplished in early 2001.

Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other districts considering title transfer?

Daren Coon: The lessons we learned from our experience in title transfer were to educate ourselves on the rules of the road, to learn who our audience was, and to seek modifications to rules only when necessary. Folks should acquaint themselves with the relevant federal rules, regulations, statutes, and laws. When they perceive a roadblock, irrigation entities tend to immediately start complaining, hoping that somebody will listen to the complaint and give them an exemption. That’s not a particularly good way to function. My suggestion is to learn what your issues are, work with folks, and compromise where necessary. If both sides function under these basic guidelines, the process will be successful.

Another simple lesson is to not to ask for everything in the title transfer. Some folks are interested in obtaining exclusive title to the water right in their irrigation system and forget that the water right is a federal asset that has purposes beyond irrigation, such as hydroelectricity, flood control, recreation, and water quality. The focus should be on the effective and efficient delivery of irrigation water. In our case, NMID jointly secured its name on the water rights with Reclamation. Essentially, we’re partners for life as far as the water rights go, but the district has exclusive jurisdiction over the distribution and the drainage system. That is an important component of the water right, and that jurisdiction allows NMID to be the master of its own fate.

Irrigation Leader: You collaborated with Reclamation to develop some guidelines for title transfer. What were the main new pieces of information that you were able to bring to that process?

Daren Coon: I wrote narratives on how to determine whether title transfer would require a full environmental impact statement (EIS) or just an environmental assessment (EA), which is less complicated and less expensive. Our goal was to prove to the federal government that an EA would meet the needs and requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal stakeholders, including Native American tribes. I also wrote narratives about the process of valuation of an irrigation and drainage system, which persuaded Reclamation that irrigation and drainage systems like NMID’s have no value except when they are used for the purpose they were constructed for.

NMID spent a great deal of time on precision discussions with the State Historical and Preservation Office (SHPO) to help it understand the historical value of the facilities that were being considered for transfer. This resulted in an agreement with the SHPO and Reclamation that preserved the historical integrity of the facilities while allowing NMID to continue with its necessary O&M duties. Many irrigation entities complain about the SHPO without studying the purposes of the historical mitigation process. This creates an artificial roadblock on the part of the entity seeking title transfer. Historical values should not be ignored or trivialized. Once this is recognized, the path forward becomes much easier. 

I’m concerned that some irrigation entities are asking entirely too much of the U.S. taxpayer. I would caution entities to avoid a one-sided approach, and at all cost to avoid creating a perception of greed or demand for subsidy. Remember that perception tends to become reality. Irrigation systems cannot be compared to interstate highway systems. The beneficiaries can be concisely identified, the benefits are local and quantifiable, the systems are mature, and the need for federal financial support is not as great as it once was. What is necessary are strong federal, state, and local laws supporting the ownership of water rights and the right to use the water as the water right holders see fit. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the main changes that you’ve seen over the course of your career? 

Daren Coon: From the beginning, I absolutely and firmly believed that technology would be beneficial to the district. I began to advocate for the use of technology from nearly my first day on the job in 1976. I come from the stone age, when people actually wrote computer code. I learned to write machine code, code that actually drives computers. This required writing in a concisely stated, high-level computer language such as COBOL, FORTRAN, or DIBOL. Not many people are still around in irrigation districts doing that sort of thing. To this day, NMID invests significantly in technology, but only when we firmly know that the return on investment is proper. 

Title transfer was widely discussed in the West for several years before falling by the wayside. I have always been a cheerleader for title transfer, and I was disappointed that interest waned. It seems now that the old is new again, and folks have rediscovered title transfer as a method for becoming masters of their own fate.

As we discussed, the development of a pressure urban irrigation system was a big change. If an irrigation district in the West is to survive, it needs to prepare to handle urbanization. When I was doing work for Colorado State University, I would do guest lectures in north-central California and other places in the West. I attempted to explain to those folks that instead of running from the huge wave of urban development that was coming, they should at least stand ground and be prepared to deal with it so that they could preserve the use of the water on the land. 

On a local basis, one important process was the Snake River Basin Adjudication (SRBA), which began around 1983. Even though the state celebrated the conclusion of the SRBA a few years ago, it really isn’t over. Just recently, a few court decisions have been issued. The SRBA is a multidecade project, but I think we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Irrigation Leader: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned as manager? 

Daren Coon: It is extremely important not to forget all the moving parts in an irrigation district. The people who work at NMID are a great asset. It has been a great privilege to work alongside this great group of dedicated people. I’ve known so many people who have given a great deal of their personal human resources to ensure that others have essential water supplies. The taxpayer should never be marginalized, nor should our peer groups in federal, state, and local government. We all rely on one another. I’m concerned that if I named folks personally, I would unintentionally leave some one out. Those living and reading this will know how important they are to me and to all of us—I’ve told them so. I can say that my parents and my wife were the single greatest asset in our joint success, and they deserve a big thanks.

I think one needs to set aside ego. There are a lot of smart people working unseen in irrigation in the West. A great deal of the success of people whose faces and voices are seen and heard in public can be attributed to the support of those people behind the scenes. Understanding the social psychology of the folks you live and work with is extremely important. I tell folks that I really despise politics. They laugh and say that that’s part of my job, and I respond that that doesn’t necessarily mean that I like it. It’s important to remember that it’s not about you. It’s about keeping your eye on the prize, delivering the irrigation water, preserving the taxpayers’ equity in the irrigation district, and making sure the district survives and prospers into the next century. 

Daren Coon is the secretary-treasurer and secretary of the board of the Nampa & Meridian Irrigation District. He can be contacted at dcoon@nmid.org or (208) 466-7861