Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Lance Philben Ainsworth, NE

Manager | Ainsworth Irrigation District

Years working in irrigation: 7 

Years as manager: 4 

Number of employees: 12 

Size of service area in acres: 34,518 

Amount of water diverted for irrigation per year in acre-feet: 60,000–70,000 

Main crops irrigated: Corn, soybeans 

Predominant irrigation methods: Center pivot 

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

Lance Philben: It is definitely an aging infrastructure. Many of these irrigation projects are not that far from the end of their life expectancy. The amount of money that was needed for their initial construction pales in comparison to the amount of money that is required to do a major project if something needs to be replaced. We have been getting aggressive on our maintenance of our main canal, and it’s a huge part of our budget. 

Irrigation Leader: What future issues are you preparing for? 

Lance Philben: The board and I try to keep our ears to the ground and stay ahead of issues involving water at both the state and local levels. Some problems are telegraphed, and you have time to prepare. The tough ones are the ones that come up suddenly and catch you off guard. In either scenario, it’s crucial to be ready to protect our district’s water supply. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your top issues regarding personnel? 

Lance Philben: The year I took the manager position, we had four people retire. They took close to 100 years of combined experience with them. Luckily, I was able to find great people to fill those positions. There are four more who will be able to retire in the next 5–10 years, and in a small community, I hope I will find great new candidates again. 

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

Lance Philben: When we hire a new person, they get on-the-job training on how to deliver water efficiently. We help them get a commercial driver’s license and a pesticide applicator’s license as part of our employee requirements. 

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

Lance Philben: $1,500–$2,000. 

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

Lance Philben: We have a four-person safety committee made up of employees. They schedule and conduct monthly meetings for the staff. They’re in charge of picking the topics, which we try to tailor to what we are working on in the field at the time. 

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

Lance Philben: The main thing I’ve learned is not to make any quick decisions based on what I’m hearing, whether in the community, in the back room, from politicians, or from other entities with an interest in water. I am careful to separate fact from fiction, and I move forward based on what’s best for the district. 

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

Lance Philben: You need to be a people person. You need to be able to read people. You need to get out and work with your people so you can get to know them. It’s important to be able to build relationships with others who view what you are doing differently. You also have to be able to admit when you’ve made a bad decision. It’s best to just say, “Hey, I screwed up, I'm sorry, and we’re going to move on from here.” In the past, I have worked with people who were never wrong, yet I’ve never met a person who was right all the time. That can be a morale killer for your team. 

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

Lance Philben: I try to be as informational and transparent as possible with my board. If I’m going to try something different or I need a piece of equipment, I always talk it over with them first. They are usually supportive if they have all the information and know what direction we’re headed in and what the end goal is. Communication is key. 

Lance Philben is the manager of the Ainsworth Irrigation District. He can be contacted at aidist@threeriver.net.