The Naches-Selah Irrigation District serves more than 10,500 acres in Washington’s Yakima County and has a history going back to the 19th century. The land the district serves is devoted predominantly to apple, cherry, and pear orchards, some of which have now been in the same families for five or six generations.
Justin Harter has been the district’s general manager for the past 14 years. For the past several years, he has also been involved in a simple and effective form of public outreach. Twice a year, Mr. Harter presents information about his district and about the art of water management generally to a local seventh grade class, building the community’s knowledge of and appreciation for the work of the district.
In this interview with Irrigation Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill, Mr. Harter explains how the outreach program
got started, what he teaches the students, and the benefits the program has both for the district and for the community as a whole.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Justin Harter: I’ve been in irrigation for 22 years now. I started my career at South Columbia Irrigation District in Pasco, Washington, and for the last 14 years I’ve been the manager of the Naches-Selah Irrigation District. Careerwise, it’s been rewarding to work at a small, older district that needs a lot of improvements. We’ve made many of those improvements, and we have more to do.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about Naches-Selah’s school outreach program.
Justin Harter: Ms. Katherine Miller, a teacher at Naches Valley Middle School, saw the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan outreach booth at the Kittitas County Fair in September 2017 and inquired about the possibility of someone coming to speak to her class. The outreach person we had for the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan was leaving the position at that point, so I was asked to volunteer.
I visit a seventh grade science class twice every year—in the fall to speak for one period to a conservation-focused student group called the Green Team, and in the spring for a full day.
Joshua Dill: What do you tell them about?
Justin Harter: In the 40–50 minutes I have with each class, I explore the importance of water in the basin that the kids live in. I tell them what an irrigation district does and how our district serves the community and them, and I show them different parts of Naches-Selah’s irrigation infrastructure as well as irrigation infrastructure in other parts of the basin. Additionally, I show the students slides from a trip to India I took with the World Bank in 2016 to demonstrate how irrigation works on the other side of the world.
I also get into broader topics, from the natural science of water to the applied physics and engineering that goes into operating and maintaining our water infrastructure, parts of which have been in service since 1890. I tell them about the ongoing projects that are part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan—as a 30-year plan, it will still be ongoing when these students become voters. I even delve into Washington State water law with a slide called “How We Share the Available Water.”
Ms. Miller also encourages her students to hear about different career paths. They like to know how I got into my career and what I’ve done. I also tell them about other opportunities in water and irrigation beyond engineering, including science, law, and the trades. I tell them about the teams that maintain the canals and keep the water flowing. To have people choose careers in water is as important, or more so, than the dams, canals, and pipes into which so much capital is invested.
Joshua Dill: Are the students familiar with what an irrigation district does before you get there, or is it new to them?
Justin Harter: It varies. It is a rural school district, so some of the students live on farms, but people are getting further and further removed from agriculture, so some of them don’t have a extensive understanding of irrigation.
Joshua Dill: What are the students most interested in learning about?
Justin Harter: There is a student group called the Green Team that meets during the first period and focuses on conservation, recycling, and reuse. The Green Team oversees the recycling program at the middle school. They are interested in natural resources and conservation.
The seventh graders come up with interesting questions. They ask me everything from, “Do you enjoy your job?” to “How do you know when the river’s going to flood?”
Joshua Dill: What are the most important things that the students learn?
Justin Harter: First, the effort it takes to move water and put it to use. Second, the activities we undertake in the Yakima basin to improve water supply while also protecting habitat and improving flows in the rivers for various interests—fish, wildlife, agriculture, and other community needs.
Joshua Dill: Is it difficult to present the information in a way that is comprehensible to seventh graders?
Justin Harter: I don’t worry about talking over their heads. I talk to them in the same way I talk to the general public. They can understand complex concepts. In my experience, you can just talk to the students, and if they don’t understand something, they’ll ask questions.
The slides I use are mix of slides I created for this class and others that were made for Yakima Basin Integrated Plan presentations. Most presentations, even in a professional setting, are fairly straightforward.
If I’m interested in something, I find it easy to talk about, so I feel fairly comfortable speaking in a setting like the classroom. I share my interests and my professional experience, help the students understand our world a bit, and maybe even make them consider a career path in the irrigation field.
Joshua Dill: What are the benefits of community outreach for the irrigation district?
Justin Harter: At the irrigation district, we do our jobs without necessarily attracting too much attention, so we are sometimes taken for granted by the community.
Only a small part of the population knows us well. I think it is our duty to make sure the community knows what we do and whom we serve. If you aren’t making the effort to provide the community with a positive view, they’ll develop an opinion on their own, and depending on their experiences, it may be negative. Building that awareness helps down the line, for example, when there are elections. Some conscious effort needs to be made to maintain what is called a social license—that is, goodwill and support that you may need to call on at some point.
Joshua Dill: What is your vision for this program for the future?
Justin Harter: I would like to maintain it. I’ve encouraged Ms. Miller to offer my contact information to teachers
at other schools in the area. There are also other professionals in the area who visit this class, which is good to see. I’ve been happy to be a resource to put her in touch with other professionals.
Joshua Dill: What advice do you have for other districts that want to set up a similar program?
Justin Harter: Reach out to the schools. Schools and teachers are looking for relevant, educational materials for their students. Information like this is relevant to a number of subject areas, not only to science. You can work around their lesson plans—for example, a science class may cover natural resources and water at a certain time of the year, so you can time your visit to line up with that. It’s a time commitment, but nothing huge.