Kennewick Irrigation District (KID) provides water to agricultural and residential customers across more than 20,000 acres in the Yakima River basin of Washington State. KID has 62 employees and serves 66,000 customers. In this interview, KID Manager Chuck Freeman tells Irrigation Leader how his district responded to the COVID‑19 pandemic and gives his advice about proactive decisionmaking.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and about KID.
Chuck Freeman: I’ve been the district manager of KID for 10½ years. We have a service area of 20,201 acres. We’re the last Bureau of Reclamation project in the Yakima River basin. Our district includes parts of the cities of Kennewick, Richland, and West Richland and parts of unincorporated Benton County. We have 11,000 agricultural acres; the rest is urban, surburban, and rural residential land. We have a little over 25,000 accounts and provide service to about 67,000 people. We have 62 permanent employees and up to 34 temporary employees in construction positions.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
Chuck Freeman: We reacted pretty early—in fact, I thought at the time that I might have had people start working from home too early. On March 11, I started meeting with my department heads and my information technology (IT) guy to identify employees who could do their jobs from home. Twenty-one of us, myself included, have been working from home since mid‑March. Luckily, the district already had the necessary technology, so we had to buy very little. We paired people with laptops and created a virtual private network tunnel for each person so that they could get into our system in a secure manner. The folks who are still in the office are those whom we can’t set up at home, such as customer service. Five of those employees have to be in the office because they take in money, and there’s no way that we can have a person sitting at home processing payments. On March 11, we also closed the business to the public and restricted it to appointments only.
The majority of our employees who work out in the field needed to keep working because we had to make sure the canals were safe and that we could deliver water. We created work silos—that is, teams of people who are isolated from one another. One of our crews was set up just to do work orders, for instance on systems coming back online after the winter. Another crew deals with another part of startup, namely managing the canals and the big mainline transmission pipes. The third crew is a construction crew that is still working on capital projects from the winter.
Irrigation Leader: How did the outbreak affect the KID staff who were on the Irrigation Leader tour in New Zealand?
Chuck Freeman: We sent three of our staff to New Zealand for the Irrigation Leader tour: Jason McShane, our engineering and operations manager; Kirk Rathbun, the president of our board; and Dan Tissel, our engineer. While they were gone, I was picking up on the news of this virus. At that time, the Centers for Disease Control were advising folks who were returning from abroad to stay home for 14 days. I sent the three of them an e-mail while they were still in New Zealand, asking them to stay home for 14 days after their return, and they were all gracious enough to do that. Before Jason and Dan got home, we had our IT guy deliver technology to their front steps. Unfortunately, the day they returned from their 14‑day self‑quarantine, I sent them back home to work remotely while we ride out this storm.
Irrigation Leader: How are you keeping your customers and your employees safe?
Chuck Freeman: We’re staying locked down and are keeping our building shut. We’ve provided our employees with a lot of information and the guidelines that have been released by the state and federal governments. One of the first things we purchased, back in mid-March, was hand sanitizer by the gallon. We were also able to get some masks and gloves. We gave each employee their own medium-size bottle of hand sanitizer to keep at their workstation or office. For the guys in the field, we set up containers of soap and water on their work trucks so that they can wash their hands.
Irrigation Leader: What is the most innovative thing that you have done to maintain your workflow?
Chuck Freeman: We’re using technology. All our meetings are Zoom meetings, including our board meetings, leadership meetings, staff meetings, and department head meetings. We actually purchased 200 acres of land in a Zoom board meeting.
Irrigation Leader: How did your board members respond to that?
Chuck Freeman: I’ve been working from home since March 18, and it’s made me a little nervous. I feel like I need to get into the office. We had a big meeting the other day, the effects of which may be transformative to the district, and I was nervous about not being there. However, our board president, Kirk Rathbun, thinks it is working well, and what’s most important is that the board is comfortable with using this technology to do business.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect to retain any of the changes you have adopted during the pandemic after it is over?
Chuck Freeman: I think we will, especially if the pandemic comes back in waves. We have one conference room that will fit 20 people, but it will probably be a couple of years before we put that many people in it again. We are also working with an architect to evaluate our customer service workstations. We designed our building to be a hard target against physical harm, but we did not think about environmental controls to protect our employees. We’re looking at what we can retrofit.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other districts?
Chuck Freeman: Don’t be shy to implement things. KID locked down before any city did and before anything else in our community did. We talked a little bit about our decision on social media. Don’t be afraid to make big decisions if you think they will protect you and your staff.