Irrigation Leader
Photo of Clancy Flynn standing in a field
District Profile,  Interview,  Washington State

New Leadership at Columbia Irrigation District An interview with Clancy Flynn

Colombia Irrigation District (CID), located in southeastern Washington, delivers water to approximately 10,000 acres on close to 7,000 parcels of land. CID holds one of the oldest water rights in the Yakima River basin, with the district having officially formed in 1917. The CID system begins at the Wanawish Dam along the Yakima River and delivers water to the town of Kennewick. The CID system consists primarily of open canals, both lined and unlined, which total approximately 41 miles in length. CID is currently building its vision for the future to proactively ensure its water delivery capability for many years to come. Kris Polly, editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader, spoke with Clancy Flynn, CID general manager, about the district's history, challenges, and forward-thinking vision.

Kris Polly: Please tell us about yourself and your professional background.

Clancy Flynn: I was born in Frenchtown, Montana, and I graduated from high school in Ephrata, Washington, in 1997. I had my first job in irrigation in 2000, working seasonally for the Wenatchee Reclamation District. I then attended Eastern Washington University, but I left school and took a full-time job with the Wenatchee Reclamation District as a canal patrolman. I finished my degree in business management at Western Governors University and went on to manage the Selah-Moxee Irrigation District.

After that, I was an assistant watermaster at the QuincyColumbia Basin Irrigation District, and then I managed the South Board of Control in Idaho, which covered the Ridgeview Irrigation District in Oregon and the Gem Irrigation District in Idaho. After that, I came back to Washington and worked in the private sector for 2 years, and, as of June 2018, I have been managing CID.

Kris Polly: Did you grow up on a farm with irrigation?

Clancy Flynn: Actually, no; my father was a long-haul trucker when I was growing up. We were not close to irrigation or agriculture. My father did do some work for a couple farms in his younger days, and I also did some farm work over the years. Growing up in Ephrata, which is part of the Quincy Irrigation District, a lot of the guys that I knew in high school were farmers.

Kris Polly: What would you credit as getting you involved in the irrigation business?

Clancy Flynn: Well, that’s a funny story. When I was a young kid growing up in Montana, I used to play in a small seasonal stream near our house. I would mainly try to dam the thing up and divert the water in a bunch of crazy ways. So, I guess that I've had an interest in this type of stuff since I was a young kid. Couple that interest with the connection I had with the superintendent of the Wenatchee Reclamation District when I needed a job, and the answer is pretty clear!

Kris Polly: Could you please tell us about CID?

Clancy Flynn: We have a staff of 12: three employees are office based, and the rest are operations staff who handle everything that happens out of the office. They work on things like general maintenance, vegetation issues, limited irrigation district (LID) issues, and general canal problems during the season. During the off-season, we all become maintenance- and construction-oriented. The district's roots date back to 1888, when land prospectors and the Northern Pacific Railroad started planning out an irrigation system. That operation changed hands several times in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, until the formation of CID. Before CID took over, the irrigation project went belly-up several times while trying to get the infrastructure built. The shareholders from back east who were funding the project kept getting nervous, which caused the project to change hands several times before it became CID. It is important to point out that we are not a Reclamation district.

We service close to 9,600 acres within an 11,000-acre boundary. We have 7,600 water accounts; we have moved toward a more urban and residential service profile over the last few decades. Currently, we have around 30 percent agricultural use and close to 70 percent urban and small landowner use—pastures and hobby farms, for example. We have a few hundred acres of fruit trees and a few thousand acres of row crops, like peas and other things. We also have some silage and grains.

Something interesting to point out is that we carry water for a few thousand acres that are primarily a vineyard, and we carry water for the Kennewick Irrigation District (KID). We have around 145 cubic feet per second (cfs) that we can max out in, but we end up carrying around 175 cfs at our maximum because we carry water for KID and the large vineyard in our area.

Essentially, we wheel the water around for KID: We take it in at our headworks, and they pump it out in four different locations. KID pays us for this service through a water carriage fee, and that large vineyard also pays a water carriage fee. KID and CID are pretty closely linked; a portion of KID's service was originally deeded over to the CID predecessors via the Northern Pacific Railroad. As the feasibility of the projects was being worked out, it shifted more toward KID, and then when KID was formed, it officially took that area into its boundaries. We used to carry almost 56 cfs for KID, but now, by the plan, we are down much lower than that.

Kris Polly: What are the primary methods of irrigation in your district?

Clancy Flynn: We have some pivot and some drip in the farmlands; we don’t have a whole lot of people who are still doing flood or rill irrigation. As we have urbanized, a lot of the irrigation has gone to sprinkler. A majority of our ground is sprinkled right now. We do have a couple outliers in the small hobby farms, where they are doing some flood irrigation, but that is an extremely small percentage.

Kris Polly: Is your canal system open or piped?

Clancy Flynn: The primary transfer system is an open canal; we don’t have a whole lot of piped canal systems. However, we do operate 40 or so LIDs that are both pressurized and nonpressurized, but they are all in pipe. We have around 30 pumping stations that pressurize the LID systems, and we have a pretty extensive network of piping, but it is delivery-oriented. Our piping is for delivering water to a specific place rather than carrying the water over a great distance.

We have almost become more like a city utility in this respect because of the way in which we are delivering water to our customers. There have been growing pains, but as we modernize, those growing pains will stop. We spend a lot of our time on work orders related to these pipes, so during the season we don’t do as much maintenance as a typical agriculturalbased irrigation district would. We don’t have crews out performing much canal maintenance via heavy machinery during the season unless something bad happens.

"We are trying to be more involved in the conversation and be more proactive about changing things when they need to be changed."

—CLANCY FLYNN

Kris Polly: How do you control for aquatic weed growth?

Clancy Flynn: We have gone to a zero-acrolein format. We don’t have an overly long system; we only have about 40 miles of open ditch. Endothall works really well for us—one shot of that from the head end of our system carries through our entire system. We will boost the Endothall with copper carbonate every 6 to 8 miles in the system. We have fairly good luck with this method as long as we are proactive with the treatments. I think our team is really great at staying on top of it, which means we don’t have a whole lot of problems.

This year has been a little bit more challenging because we have had more hot days, which means we have seen more algae and plant growth in the system. We had to treat more frequently than we have in the past, and we ended up with a lot of stuff breaking off and plugging up the system. That is where most of our overtime gets spent: dealing with the plants after we treat.

Kris Polly: Do your pivot people have specialized filters?

Clancy Flynn: I’m unaware of any that don’t have pretty great dragon-style filters, which keep them cleaned out pretty well. This year, we have had slime algae, like rock snot and things, get into people’s filters, and they have had to clean that out. We have seen people having to clean a lot more frequently this year. We have had several patrons come the office asking why there is so much of that stuff, and the only answer is the extra hot days that we are having.

Kris Polly: What are the most significant issues facing CID?

Clancy Flynn: Aging infrastructure is the most looming challenge; I know that everyone is struggling with that right now. It is a special concern to us because we are one of the older irrigation districts along the Yakima River. Our infrastructure’s roots go back to 1889, when the original wood crib dam was built. It was essentially a giant wooden check structure, which has since been replaced. It is a pretty good structure, but we are always thinking about the condition of the dam. We also have a seasoned canal system that is partially concrete-lined but mostly earthen, with some concretelined sections dating to the early 1900s. We also have flumes that were all replaced in the 1980s; they are not as old as some of our other infrastructure, but even so, they are 30 years old now.

The other top issue for us is adapting to a more urban, residential water use profile. The ebb and flow of our water usage is much different than traditional agriculture needs. Our infrastructure was built originally for agriculture. So not only do we have the challenge of old infrastructure, but we have a situation in which our canal system is designed to irrigate rill ground and flood irrigation—farmers would be running water in 12- or 24-hour sets before they would turn their water off, but residential customers are typically using their water before they go to work or as soon as they get home from work to water their lawn. We end up having this huge wave of what we like to call slack water that goes out during the middle of the day or late at night as operational spills because we have to keep the canal full to meet those peak demand times.

This new usage pattern has led to our next main problem: We have no water storage in our district. Not only do we want to modernize and upgrade our infrastructure, we also want to work on having our own storage so we don’t end up spilling all that water at the end of our system. Storage would allow us to stabilize our flows while still being able to meet those peak demand hours. CID’s board of directors has been doing a lot of forward thinking on this issue. A couple years ago, CID purchased 6.5 acres of ground to put in a reservoir. We have a 3-year plan to get that small reservoir finished, and then, long term, we hope to build additional reservoirs. This small reservoir is near the tail end of our system, which will allow us to catch that slack water at the end and regulate those flows.

When we have those peak demands from our residential customers, our current system often cannot deliver the demand instantaneously. The people at the end of the system sometimes end up getting low pressure or a water shortage. By putting in this regulating reservoir, we can address that issue and save some water. Hopefully, we can build other reservoirs in the middle and at the head end of the system; three would be ideal to equalize the flows and meet the peak demands. The reservoir capacity will be about 38 acre-feet of water, and it will stabilize flows for about 18 percent of our district downstream from the reservoir through about 3.7 miles of canal. We figure that the cost will be about $1.4 million.

Kris Polly: What is CID’s vision for the future?

Clancy Flynn: We are looking to get everything in our district modernized so that we can better transition from agricultural to residential usage. The board has been getting more and more involved in the water landscape in the Yakima basin and in Washington State. We are trying to be more involved in the conversation and be more proactive about changing things when they need to be changed.

Specific issues include reregulation reservoirs, spending money on infrastructure, changing policies, and clearing rights-of-way so that we can get crews to the work that needs to be done. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, CID had really aggressive plans and procedures for getting canals lined, which has been put on the back burner in recent years. The board wants to focus on that again. We are dusting off our water plan and forming an aggressive stance on the piping and lining of ditches. We are trying to turn the corner on modernization. Rather than always reacting to a problem, we want to be proactive so that problems don’t even arise.

Kris Polly: What is your message to our readers? What should everyone know about your district?

Clancy Flynn: Our big struggle, which I hope people continue to keep in mind, is that the water supply in the Yakima basin has been highly contentious at times and the allocations are yet to be finalized. The appropriations and the water that is there do not always line up. Finding partners for the funding of capital projects to make irrigation districts stronger and conserve water is vital. We are at the very end of the Yakima system, and we have one of the oldest water rights on the system. Any time there is fluctuation, we take the brunt of it. When something happens in the system, we get shorted.

We have typically had some great water years, and we really wish to support all the conservation that goes on in the upper system, but for every drop that is conserved, that is one less drop of return flows that has fed the lower Yakima system. I want everyone to bear in mind that as we conserve water, we need to be thinking about the downstream effects that conservation may cause. We hope that everyone bears in mind that the Yakima River system irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres to make the desert blossom. Appropriate funding and conservation partnerships are very important to the success of the Yakima River system, its watershed, and water users.

As CID’s service area urbanizes, it has fewer large-scale farming operations that are paying for irrigation water as a business expense and a greater number of residential patrons. To the residential patron, we are a utility, and as such, they compare the cost of irrigation water to the cost of running their sprinklers through domestic water. We will be provided with many opportunities and challenges as we continue to transition to smaller-scale water usage patrons. As a district, we are eager to meet the challenges of modernizing our system and stabilizing delivery to an evolving demand pattern while maintaining an economical rate.