Mel Brooks is the chief executive of MHV Water, a large-scale irrigation district—a scheme, in New Zealand parlance— in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. MHV Water delivers water and manages environmental compliance for approximately 140,000 acres of highly productive farmland.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
Mel Brooks: In New Zealand, the decision was made before we had any deaths from COVID‑19 for the country to lock down for a minimum of 4 weeks, meaning that only essential services were allowed to remain open and our international borders were closed. Schools, restaurants, bars, retailers, hairdressers, and playgrounds were all closed. You could only leave home to go to the supermarket or pharmacy, which had strict limits on how many people could enter at a given time, as well as distancing and hygiene requirements; you could also exercise as long as you stayed 6 feet from other people and did not go swimming, surfing, or hiking. This extreme measure has had and will have a considerable economic effect, and people all over the country are having to return to their natural hair colors, but it has also meant that as of now, we have had 21 deaths and less than 1,500 cases.
While the definition of essential services certainly includes the supply of water to utilities and agriculture, given that we can deliver water remotely, we felt that it was important for us to respect the intent of the lockdown and ensure that we didn’t increase the risk to those in our population who are most susceptible to COVID‑19. As such, our team has now been working from home for more than 5 weeks, which has been a real change, especially for the members of our operations team, who don’t normally spend more than a couple of hours a day on a computer, and for those of us who are balancing homeschooling young children with work!
Water continues to be delivered and controlled remotely, even in the open races, with the assistance of our Rubicon gates. While we are working from home, we continue to communicate by phone and teleconference calls, and we have been fortunate enough to have some software in place that has made the process far easier as we slowly move back to normality.
Irrigation Leader: How are you keeping your customers and employees safe?
Mel Brooks: We have a COVID‑19 procedure that clarifies our approach to our team and farmers. Our expectations align with the government’s, so there is consistency of approach. If a member of our team needs to leave their home and respond to an alarm, they record the issue and their proposed action in our management software, Assura, either on their phone or computer. When they are out in the field, they take the necessary photos and update the result. This is all online, so there is no paper that needs to be handed to another person, risking contamination. The operations manager or any member of the management team can see the record of this action at the touch of a button.
Irrigation Leader: What is the most innovative thing you and your schemes have done to maintain workflow?
Mel Brooks: We adopted flexible working for all locations a couple of years ago, which has proven to be hugely beneficial. Those of us who usually work in the office are all still working normally, albeit from home. We had already set up home offices for all the members of our team, which included multiple screens and remote access to our networks, including all our accounting and payment functions.
For the operations team, it is a different story: While they can work online from home, they are normally in the field for approximately 80 percent of the day. After initial discussions about how we could take advantage of the lockdown, the team agreed that they would like to do some refresher software training, so we arranged for a local provider to do some training sessions via Zoom, which have been great for all concerned. We’ve done other software training, too, and the team members have used their upgraded Excel skills to perform additional analyses of our water use efficiency over the last couple of seasons. We have reviewed and updated numerous standard operating procedures, and in some cases written new protocols. While all this has perhaps not been massively innovative, it’s been a great use of time.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over?
Mel Brooks: We have been using videoconferencing software like Zoom and Teams to keep in touch and to hold our weekly full-team meetings. One member of the team attended the first meeting with a crazy hat on and, in spite of my reluctance, it caught on. Now, for every meeting, each person in the team has worn a hat, crazy glasses, or a wig. It brings a smile to everyone’s face and starts off the call with some lighthearted banter. Making sure that the team members feel connected and engaged with each other at a time when everyone is isolated in their own bubble is critical. I’d like for us to continue this in some form after the lockdown. We are all passionate and serious about what we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start or perhaps finish each meeting with some humor. We are also likely to use videoconferencing far more frequently for meetings to reduce our environmental footprint by eliminating the need to travel large distances. I also expect to see an eventual increase in the amount of working from home.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other irrigation schemes and districts?
Mel Brooks: I’m not sure about advice, but I have been reflecting on the fact that we are only able to continue to deliver water to our farmers because of the previous investments we have made both in hardware and software. We made those investments to be more efficient, but they have enabled us to largely continue to deliver water and run our business from our individual homes during the strict New Zealand lockdown. This has been ideal, because our number 1 priority is ensuring that our people are safe. Delivering water is important too, but not at the expense of our people’s health or well-being. The New Zealand protocols are being relaxed slightly so that our operations team will be able to return to doing maintenance work in the field as long as they can maintain 6 feet of distance from other people at all times. Our software investments will assist us to schedule that work in order to ensure we are making the best use of our time. As we continue to return to normal, we will be reviewing what we could have done differently and analyze where we had gaps. There may be other opportunities for us to invest in hardware or software that will benefit us in our day-to-day operations or potentially to increase the scope of how we use software like Assura, which continues to surprise us with its ability to increase our business’s efficiency. Ultimately, I want to be sure that we continue to have robust contingency plans in place for any future pandemic or natural disaster.