Established in 1918, Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID) has 31 employees and serves water to about 45,000 acres centered on the city of Redmond, Oregon. Craig Horrell is the general manager of COID and has worked there for the last 6 years. In this interview, Mr. Horrell tells Irrigation Leader how COVID‑19 has affected the district and how it has adjusted to continue providing its services.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and your district.
Craig Horrell: COID is the third-largest district in Oregon. We have 42,000 acres of irrigated agriculture. I’ve been with the district for the last 6 years and have experienced many changes, COVID-19 being one of them.
Irrigation Leader: How many employees do you have?
Craig Horrell: We have 31 staff, 14 of whom are field staff.
Irrigation Leader: Is everyone healthy?
We believe a few of our employees contracted COVID‑19 in February, but they weren’t able to get tests because they fell outside the age limits for testing that were in place. They are scheduled to be tested for antibodies.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
Craig Horrell: During the first 2 weeks of Oregon’s stay-at-home order, we sent everybody home. For the first 2–4 weeks, we were trying to get our feet back under us. It was definitely a shock. We were trying to figure out how to manage the start of the irrigation season. By implementing social distancing rules, we were able to make sure everyone felt comfortable returning to work full time. Nobody is sick today. We have a few employees who have had to work from home because they have children whom they can’t put in daycare. We are doing really well—everybody is happy, healthy, and figuring out how to deal with these changes.
Irrigation Leader: Is there anything additional you are doing to keep your customers and employees safe?
Craig Horrell: We have used social media, mailers, and an announcement on our website to ask our patrons to contact our field staff by phone or e-mail rather than approaching them directly in the field. We also have our office closed to the public, which is hard for our patrons, many of whom are 60–80 years old and value in-person contact. From what I’ve heard, at least half of irrigation districts are doing the same thing. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have a parking lot meeting with someone.
We also have rules for when employees come to the office. They’re not allowed to wander around and talk to people like they used to, which is sorely missed by the field guys. We rearranged some of our office settings and set some people up with home operations. We are holding stand-up meetings in the parking lot.
We are only allowing one employee per vehicle now. The members of our field staff are working individually. Operators are required to wipe down their equipment. We sanitize everybody’s vehicles before they come on the job, and once we hand them off to them, they’re in charge of keeping them sanitized and clean.
Irrigation Leader: What is the most innovative thing that you’ve done to maintain your workflow?
Craig Horrell: There have been almost no changes in the day-to-day work of the field staff; the most innovative changes we have made have been with the office staff, particularly the use of technology. We had to upgrade a few workstations to work from home, and we have started to hold virtual meetings through Zoom and GoToMeeting. We’ve learned how to give participants in those virtual meetings control of the screen so that they can pull up maps or spreadsheets, which has made them quite effective. That’s something that we will probably keep using in the future. It’s always best to have in-person meetings, but if we don’t have time, a quick check-in on Zoom is better than driving 3 hours to see our engineers in Portland. These virtual meetings are pretty good for that.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over?
Craig Horrell: I think we have learned that our communication needs to be clear and thorough when we’re not meeting in person. You must be good at providing precise written directions.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other districts based on what you’ve learned?
Craig Horrell: I remember that there was a point during the first few weeks when I couldn’t get in touch with someone or couldn’t get a document, and I had to stop to remember that our staff and customers are all dealing with different concerns and challenges. They may be worried about a family member in a care facility or a child. My daughter is a newly licensed nurse, and I worry about her being on the front lines right now. I had to tell myself to be patient. People will get their work done, and if you have a certain level of patience, it’ll be much better for everyone. I seem to have adjusted. I think that there is a lot of stress out there. People can be shorter with their answers and emotions. If I’m patient, it helps everybody else around me to be calm.
Irrigation Leader: What has helped you come up with ideas for how to deal with the pandemic?
Craig Horrell: The National Water Resources Association call we held early on was a great opportunity to hear about what other managers were doing.
Craig Horrell is the general manager of the Central Oregon Irrigation District. He can be contacted at (541) 548‑6047.