Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Mike Britton North Unit Irrigation District Madras, Oregon

Years working in irrigation: 16

Years as manager: 14½ 

Number of employees: 28

Size of service area: 58,880 acres

Amount of water diverted for irrigation per year in acre-feet: 200,000

Main crops irrigated: Hay, seed crops, carrot seed, grass seed, onion, garlic 

Predominant irrigation methods: Sprinkler (hand lines, wheel lines, linear, center pivot), drip 

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

Mike Britton: The demands of the Endangered Species Act and other regulations, specifically those related to the threatened Oregon spotted frog (OSF). As a result of lawsuits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and WaterWatch of Oregon aimed at the Bureau of Reclamation and operators of upper basin reservoirs, North Unit Irrigation District (NUID) and other basin districts are required to provide increased winter and early spring river flows for the frog; we also have to do a modified ramp down. 

Irrigation Leader: What future issues are you preparing for? 

Mike Britton: We’re preparing to undertake large-scale conservation projects in an effort to compensate for water lost to the OSF. We’ve been able to secure significant federal funding for conservation projects that will generate new water that can be transferred between districts. We’ve partnered with Central Oregon Irrigation District (COID), which is a senior water right holder and has better opportunities to develop and conserve water. For each cubic foot per second of water conserved in COID, a commensurate amount would be released in the winter from Wickiup Reservoir, the 200,000 acre-foot storage reservoir that provides 70 percent of NUID supply. In exchange, NUID will pick up portions of COID’s senior natural flow in the summer. 

Irrigation Leader: What are your top issues regarding personnel?

Mike Britton: It is difficult to attract new talent as our aging workforce retires, especially because of our rural setting and lifestyle. The institutional knowledge of retiring employees is hard to replace. In addition, it’s becoming difficult to find talent that wants to step into senior management roles, which have become increasingly political, and as such, conflict prone and unappealing.

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

Mike Britton: Operations personnel receive training on equipment operation, trench safety, welding safety, personal protective equipment, and dam tending, as appropriate. Our board of directors and staff training includes state and federally mandated training as well as district-specific training relating to topics including geographic information systems, accounting software, and new automation systems. We also send employees to conferences held by organizations like the Special Districts Association, the Oregon Water Resource Congress, and the National Water Resources Association.

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

Mike Britton: About $20,000. I see that increasing as we hire new employees to replace retiring members of our workforce.

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

Mike Britton: When I started managing the districts, my role was more operational. I spent more time out in the field with our work crews, farmers, and patrons. Since the OSF issue and the need for large-scale funding for projects emerged, my role has become more politicized. I spend more time educating the general public about irrigation districts and how improvements to our systems benefit all.

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

Mike Britton: Patience, keeping a level head, and common sense. The ability to get along with people, be a good judge of character, and manage and respond to uncomfortable situations are important. You need to be able to address complex and controversial issues carefully, tactfully, and thoughtfully. A work life–home life balance is key, as these jobs can be all consuming—particularly in basins where conflict and controversy abound. 

Mike Britton is manager of the North Unit Irrigation District in Madras, Oregon. He can be contacted at mbritton@northunitid.com.