The Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District (GWID) services 10,000 acres in north-central Washington State. As an essential business, GWID has had to find new ways to operate during the COVID‑19 pandemic. In this interview, GWID Manager Mike Miller, who has been with the district for almost three decades, tells Irrigation Leader about the challenges it has had to face during the pandemic and the measures it is taking to continue operations.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and about GWID.
Mike Miller: I’ve worked for GWID for 29 years. I started as a foreman and electrician and worked my way up to manager. We service 10,000 acres of tree fruits. In addition to me, we have five field employees, one full-time office employee, and one part-time office employee.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
Mike Miller: GWID is divided into three specific units: the East Wenatchee unit, the Brays Landing unit, and the Howard Flats unit. There are about 30–35 miles between each of them. One of the three GWID employees who work in the East Wenatchee unit tested positive for COVID‑19. The other two employees have been working around him and trying to socially distance, but we ended up having to require all three of them to self-isolate. We were in the process of trying to get our water on as quickly as possible before we had a positive test, and we didn’t make it all the way through. One East Unit operator tested positive and was immediately sent home. The other two East Unit field personnel, who had been working closely with him, were sent home as well. I’ve been out in the field turning on water myself, and in the case of emergencies, two of those three employees are coming out to help, wearing gloves and masks. Special thanks are due to Craig Simpson of East Columbia Basin Irrigation District and Waylon Marshall of Wenatchee Reclamation District, who both called and offered to provide help when we were down people. That was greatly appreciated as I tried to come up with a plan to move forward.
Irrigation Leader: How many people do you have working right now?
Mike Miller: Currently, three people are working full time: the Bray’s Landing operator, the Howard Flats operator, and me. One employee is working in the East Wenatchee unit for emergencies only. After a 14‑day period of limited working during which none of them felt ill, the two East Unit employees came back to work. The third East Unit employee had a roommate test positive, so the health department told us not to let him return to work unless he waited 14 days and had no symptoms. As of May 11, all employees have returned to work. Our office manager had been traveling, so we required her to work remotely; she will be allowed back on May 18, assuming she shows no symptoms.
Irrigation Leader: How are you keeping your customers and employees safe?
Mike Miller: We’ve been trying to keep our hands sanitized and to keep our distance from everybody. The guys were all issued a box of gloves and some N‑95 masks and are required to use them. We aren’t going anywhere we don’t need to and are trying to do our best to stay away from other people as much as possible. The doors of our office are locked, and there is a note asking people to call rather than come in.
Irrigation Leader: How are you conducting your board meetings and so forth?
Mike Miller: Our last board meeting was done on Microsoft Teams. In Washington State, there is a rule stating that board meetings held via video media are only supposed to cover usual and necessary business—basically, just pay the bills and not do extraordinary stuff.
Irrigation Leader: What’s the most innovative thing that you’ve done to maintain your workflow?
Mike Miller: Probably doing board meetings online. We’re pretty capable of running our system remotely if all the pumps have been run. Our guys can test the pumps and other equipment online. We can see what pumps are running, what problems they have, and their pressure remotely. We had a good grip on the technology—the challenge is actually getting the water turned on. GWID is distinctive because we’re pumped, pressurized, and metered. We turn off every delivery valve before we start our pumps, and once our pumps are running, we go through and start opening the valves and making sure each farmer’s valves are done.
Early on, when we first started running water, I told the guys that even though we typically would have to wait until our customers proved that they’d paid and until our Reclamation Reform Act (RRA) paperwork was in, I was concerned that we wouldn’t get all our valves turned back on before somebody tested positive, so we were going to work as fast as we could to get through the work. We got a letter from the Bureau of Reclamation forgiving us for not waiting for the RRA forms, and we worked as quickly as possible, but someone still tested positive prior to getting all valves opened. Reclamation has been understanding; it is dealing with the same issues. We give our special thanks to Commissioner Burman and Mr. Palumbo for giving us a 30‑day extension, which we appreciated. The public has been pretty understanding, too. Most people understand that our service would be a little bit slower.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over?
Mike Miller: We’ve been bouncing around the idea of having one or two of our board members participate remotely. Maybe we won’t hold all our board meetings remotely, but once in a while we could have a board member speak with us via video. I purchased Microsoft Office 365 so that we can use Microsoft Teams all the time. That could even come in handy if an employee in the field needs to video chat with us about a problem.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other irrigation districts?
Mike Miller: It would help a small district like GWID to have a few more full-time staff, because you never know when you’re going to have an emergency. Other utilities typically staff based on emergency requirements; our irrigation district staffs based on our daily workload. I would say that, at minimum, we should always have 2 people in the office and should probably have 7–10 field employees. At our current staffing levels, when someone is on vacation or out sick, it is a struggle to figure out who’s going to cover their responsibilities. I think we’ve grown to the point at which we should be able to give our water users certainty that we have sufficient manpower to do our job.
Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Mike Miller: GWID is working through title transfer with Reclamation, and one of the requirements is for a team from the district to do a cultural and historical study. Our contractor is from out of town and needs to be on site. The current travel bans and closures have slowed this process and put us behind schedule. Reclamation has been under considerable pressure to stay on time with this process.
I appreciate our employees. No matter what, they’ve come out and helped with emergencies. They’ve masked up, put gloves on, and made sure that I wasn’t stuck out there alone. We also appreciate that our board members have tried to offer ideas to make things easier for staff at GWID. This has been a struggle for all of us. It has been helpful to have all the information from other districts and areas, and I would like to thank the entities that have shared information with us, as well as the farm and water associations, which have helped us get through this pandemic. Problems will arise, but we will put our heads down and charge forward to deliver water. This will not be the last curveball irrigation districts face.