Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Dave Solem: South Columbia Basin Irrigation District Pasco, Washington

Years working in irrigation: 37

Years as manager: 36

Number of employees: 115

Size of service area in acres: 230,000

Amount of water diverted for irrigation per year in acre-feet: 800,000-1,000,000

Main crops irrigated: Alfalfa, potatoes, apples, wheat, corn, grapes

Predominant irrigation methods: Center pivot, sprinkler, drip

Irrigation Leader: What is the top issue facing your irrigation district today?

Dave Solem: Infrastructure upkeep is something we always have to be concerned with. Our district is over 60 years old, and its facilities need more attention. It will not be inexpensive. We have nearly 100 pump plants in the district for relift and drainage, so upgrading the pumps and replacing power transmission lines will take time and resources. Besides our annual maintenance needs, we’re starting to see some larger structures needing rehabilitation.

Irrigation Leader: What future issues are you preparing for?

Dave Solem: Over the next 10 years, we want to identify and fund many of the district rehabilitation projects. In addition, we have to pay for reserved works like the John W. Keys III Pump-Generating Plant, a huge plant where over 8,000 cubic square feet per second of Columbia River water is lifted 300 feet from Lake Roosevelt to supply the Columbia Basin Project. The plant is in the middle of a major, multimillion-dollar upgrade. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your top issues regarding personnel?

Dave Solem: We are a unionized district. About 70 of our employees are in the union and have a contract that will run out at the end of 2020, so we’ll have to renegotiate it. We have a tight labor market in Washington, which can lead to employee turnover. We frequently have to train new employees. We try to hire people with the right skills, which can be difficult. For example, we’ve had some challenges hiring electricians, who are in short supply in the area. 

Irrigation Leader: What training do you currently provide your employees?

Dave Solem: We provide a variety of training for our ditch riders and maintenance crews. They may need commercial driver’s licenses, first aid certifications, pesticide applicator certifications, or the training to be flaggers or crane operators. Some of the training needs to be repeated annually, which uses up a lot of time, especially considering that we do most the training in the nonirrigation season, at the same time that we have to do major maintenance. 

Irrigation Leader: How much do you spend on training for your employees each year?

Dave Solem: The short answer is probably not enough. For 2020, the figure is approximately $50,000.

Irrigation Leader: What is the most important thing you have learned as manager?

Dave Solem: The importance of communicating with your staff, building good rapport, and earning their trust. Because operating the district requires keeping so many balls in the air, we really need to depend on each other to get work done.

Irrigation Leader: What are the top skills needed to be a successful manager?

Dave Solem: Different managers have different styles and skill sets. A manager needs to tailor their skill set to their particular situation. In my position, I try to hire smart, skilled people and then stay out of their way. If they need assistance or support, I’m there to help them out. Our goal is to make our employees successful. I have learned a lot by listening to other managers. You will never know it all, so try new things to see what works. 

Dave Solem is manager of South Columbia Basin Irrigation District in Pasco, Washington. He can be reached at dsolem@scbid.org or (509) 547-1735.