Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Gary Esslinger Las Cruces, NM

Manager | Elephant Butte Irrigation District

Years working in irrigation: 44 

Years as manager: 34 

Number of employees: 80 

Size of service area in acres: 90,640 

Amount of water diverted for irrigation per year in acre-feet: 282,098 (2010); 57,707 (2021) 

Main crops irrigated: Alfalfa, chiles, cotton, onions, pecans 

Predominant irrigation methods: Flood, drip

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

Gary Esslinger: Surface water scarcity. The 2022 forecast looks dismal. A normal allotment is 3 acre-feet per acre, but we have not seen that kind of release for many years. In 2021, we ran our canals fast and furious for 1 month with a 4‑inch allotment for the farmers who placed orders. 

Irrigation Leader: What future issues are you preparing for? 

Gary Esslinger: The outcome of the Supreme Court case Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado, No. 141 Original is still looming. However, settlement talks, in which the district has been heavily involved, are progressing. 

The district is continuing to advance high-level studies regarding voluntary fallowing programs for farmers and other efficiency and conservation programs and to engage with the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute and other academic organizations. We are also enhancing our surface and groundwater metering and monitoring, weather forecasting, and storm-water-capture SCADA system. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your top issues regarding personnel? 

Gary Esslinger: My goal is to keep a core of dedicated, trained, and proficient employees and to offer them a safe workplace environment. Water supply uncertainty has led me to develop cross-training methods to keep operations and maintenance 

personnel ready and available during our short water seasons. 

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

Gary Esslinger: I leave it up to my staff members to determine what training is necessary to complete the job duties in their respective departments. The various departments interface with the human resources/safety director to ensure that employment policies are followed. In the field, tailgate meetings also provide opportunities for training. 

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

Gary Esslinger: It all depends on the departments’ yearly needs. The safety director budget, which includes all personal employee protection and in-house safety training, was $10,000 last year. 

Irrigation Leader: What kind of safety programs do you have in place? 

Gary Esslinger: The New Mexico Self- Insurance Fund is in transition and changing as we speak. We adhere to that agency’s safety schedule and rely on it to provide year-round training to keep our insurance and workman’s compensation rate to a minimum. We also offer our own in-house training for specific job requirements, usually conducted by our safety director in the field or in a group setting. 

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

Gary Esslinger: Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to anger. Be patient and consider everyone’s opinion. A true solution must be a solution for everybody. You cannot please everyone, but they respect you if you at least listen and keep a balanced temperament. 

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

Gary Esslinger: I learned a long time ago to be a people person and to try to hone my skills by reading the Bible each morning. Stay educated, stay humble, and welcome good advice from your colleagues. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Times are changing rapidly, so you must be ready to take the time to listen and react to things that were not even on the radar screen the week before. 

Irrigation Leader: What is the best way to work with a board of directors? 

Gary Esslinger: I learned the hard way that they don’t like surprises. Try your best to keep them informed; meet them in the field or canal bank if necessary. I try to meet with the board president at least 1 week before regularly scheduled board meetings to go over the agenda. I also take the newly elected board members on a district tour to orient them to its layout and infrastructure. 

Gary Esslinger is the manager of Elephant Butte Irrigation District. He can be contacted at gesslinger@ebid-nm.org.