Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Steve Knell: Oakdale Irrigation District Oakdale, California

Years working in irrigation: 43

Years as manager: 18

Number of employees: 76

Size of service area in acres: 81,000

Amount of water diverted for irrigation per year in acre-feet: 225,000

Main crops irrigated: Almonds, walnuts, pasture, corn, oats 

Predominant irrigation methods: Flood, microsprinkler

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

Steve Knell: One issue is the California Water Resources Control Board’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which involves the release of 40 percent of the unimpaired flow, from February through June, of the tributaries of the San Joaquin River for delta fisheries and habitat protection. The plan would cause significant economic and social disruption to the Central Valley’s agricultural economy. We irrigation districts vehemently oppose the plan and are in negotiations with the state, challenging its science, reasoning, and judgment, in hopes of finding common ground.

The other issue of concern is California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014. This act requires critically overdrafted basins and basins of concern to have Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) in place by January 2020 and 2022, respectively, identifying the measures to be taken to achieve groundwater sustainability. We are working to develop our basin GSPs with the help of local stakeholders and water users.

Irrigation Leader: What future issues are you preparing for? 

Steve Knell: About 12 years ago, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) committed to rebuilding and modernizing its 110-year-old water delivery system. Every year since then, we’ve been investing $4-6 million in such improvements. OID adopted the Rubicon Total Channel Control System for our district as the means to provide highly managed water delivery service to farmers. A good portion of our district now gets water on demand.

Irrigation Leader: What are your top issues regarding personnel?

Steve Knell: The top issue with personnel is keeping them. We’re surrounded by some large irrigation districts that are also power utilities. They can afford somewhat better pay and benefits than we can, so competition for skilled workers is tough. As a smaller district, though, OID can offer a quality work environment that other larger utilities can’t.

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

Steve Knell: Our highest priority at OID is safety, and routine safety training is the foundation of a safe work environment. We also send newly hired ditchtenders to California Polytechnic State University for a week to take a course in water measurement and delivery. Upon their return, they spend a month in a truck with a seasoned ditchtender learning their divisions before being cut loose on the system. The same is true of our supervisory control and data acquisition hires. In addition, OID offers an education incentive program for those who want to go to night school and improve their trade skills or further their education. We also have train-the-trainer programs.

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

Steve Knell: We’ve budgeted $125,000 for 2020.

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

Steve Knell: You have to hire good people who are competent and self-motivated to do quality work. I don’t micromanage—I work with our board of directors to set the goals and direction for my management team. 

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

Steve Knell: You need to be able to connect with people at all levels. As a manager, you work with a lot of people with different needs. It takes a lot of coordination, understanding, and connection with those specific needs to make it all flow together, to keep folks happy, and to keep things running in the right direction to meet common goals. 

Steven Knell is general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District in Oakdale, California. He can be contacted at sknell@oakdaleirrigation.com.