Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

Shane M. Leonard: Pursuing Efficiency in an Urbanizing Irrigation District

The Roosevelt Water Conservation District (RWCD) has been serving local farmers, urban irrigators, and other central Arizona water users for more than a century. Located on the eastern edge of the Phoenix metro area in Maricopa County, its 40,000acre service area overlaps with the quickly growing cities of Mesa and Chandler and the town of Gilbert, meaning that it is acquiring many new customers and quickly becoming a largely urbanized district. In this interview, RWCD General Manager Shane M. Leonard tells Irrigation Leader about how his district pursues efficiency via infrastructure upgrades, staff training, and relationship building. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and about RWCD. 

Shane Leonard: I am the general manager of RWCD, which is located in eastern Maricopa County in the great state of Arizona. I am the fourth generation of my family working at the district. I received my bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University’s Morrison School of Agribusiness and Resource Management, majoring in finance and minoring in finite resource management. RWCD is approximately 40,000 acres in size, 10,000 acres of which is still irrigated, either in large-scale agricultural production or in municipal, industrial, and smaller-acreage backyard subdivisions. We currently have 52 employees. We produce approximately 60,000 acre-feet of water per year for delivery, made up primarily of renewable supplies. We recently moved into a brand-new facility, the first that we have built in 100 years. 

Irrigation Leader: How has the district made its water distribution system more efficient, and what kind of infrastructure programs have been involved? 

Shane Leonard: Several things fall under the heading of efficiencies, in my opinion. First, there is infrastructure—in our case, large open conveyances; canals; and smaller delivery systems, such as laterals and pipeline. RWCD was one of the first fully lined concrete systems designed for irrigation in the western United States. And while it is evident that a fully lined system loses less water than an unlined one, our system was designed to be completely gravity fed, such that it does not require us to introduce any more water into the system than is absolutely necessary to fulfill our deliveries. In short, we don’t have to add extra water just to push the water through the system. The next step in improving our infrastructure’s efficiency is completing the transition from above-ground delivery channels to underground rubber-gasketed reinforced concrete pipe. Based on our current capital budget and urbanization rates, I expect that will be completed in the next 5–10 years. 

The second aspect of efficiency concerns the operation of the system—in essence, RWCD staff and their utilization of the system for delivery. You can have the world’s most efficient system in place, but if the people operating it are ill trained or are constantly leaving and being replaced, then it doesn’t matter. Over the last 10 years, one of the district’s primary focuses has been to ensure that our staff are properly trained and given the necessary tools and support to perform at their best. These operators truly become specialized workers, so it is woefully inefficient not to create a good working environment and training programs to maximize retention. The operational and financial costs of having employees leave prematurely are sizable. 

The third path to efficiency is being protective of and responsive to your water supplies, particularly those that are renewable. You need to do everything that is reasonably possible to make certain they are readily available, based on fluctuating demand and relative to the ongoing drought in the West. 

I would also state that maintaining strong, trust-filled relationships with our industry partners and elected officials is a critical component of RWCD’s operational efficiency. Securing long-term relationships and multiyear renewable supply agreements has allowed us to extend our planning horizon over longer periods of time, which provides for a much more efficient use of our time and limited resources. 

System efficiency is a multifaceted issue requiring constant analysis. However, I believe the design of the system, its operations, and the people who operate that system should always be foremost in a manager’s thoughts and actions. If you remove any one of those three primary factors, then you’re not achieving your maximum efficiency. 

Irrigation Leader: You have a planned pump plant that would capture water and send it back into the system. Would you tell us more about that? 

Shane Leonard: It is actually a series of pump stations that would allow us to recapture water that has been stranded in the downstream end of our system and move it back upstream for potential use. RWCD has a closed system without an outfall. Any water that enters the system and isn’t delivered to the customer is held in the system, primarily in two reuse impoundments. We have a partially constructed reuse system that allows us to move a portion of that stored water upstream for redelivery, but it’s not all encompassing. This capital outlay would complete the pressurized reuse system so that we can move all this water anywhere in the district, thus moving it to the supply side of our water ledger. For example, if a user is unable to accept a planned delivery, we could direct the water into our downstream reuse impoundment and bring it to the customer at a later time or deliver it to another user without the need to bring new water into the system. This will be a vital portion of our system as renewable supplies are reduced and we go back to being a primarily groundwater district. When that happens, having the ability to reduce our need to mine groundwater will benefit RWCD as well as the aquifer. 

Irrigation Leader: What can you tell us about being an urbanized district? 

Shane Leonard: How much time do you have? There are so many facets to being an urbanizing district that it can be overwhelming at times. One of the things that makes RWCD unique as a historically agricultural entity in Arizona is that we are almost fully urbanized. We still serve around 5,000 acres of agricultural land, but we are quickly becoming primarily a small-farm and urban delivery system. When I talk about efficiencies in different settings—for example, the Arizona Reconsultation Committee process—I’m not necessarily exclusively talking about system efficiencies. I’m also talking about employee efficiencies, time-management efficiencies, and customer service–related efficiencies. 

Irrigation Leader: How does employee retention save time and money? 

Shane Leonard: It’s a straight-line calculation. It often surprises me how few water supply managers have completed a formalized employee retention study—that is, an analysis of how long it takes to hire and train a new person to become a fully trained and independent operating arm of their agency. Does that take 3 days, 6 months, or 6 years? Who is involved in the training process, how much time do they devote to the training, and how much of their salary or wage covers training the new hire? All that and more enters into the cost of training a new employee. I believe that many managers and their boards would be surprised with the results of that kind of detailed analysis. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your philosophy regarding staff training?

The Legacy Park at RWCD headquarters.

Shane Leonard: I’ve interviewed a lot of folks over the years, and what has become increasingly clear to me is that a good partnership with a new employee has to be based on more than steady work and a regular paycheck.

A potential hire needs to know that, beyond the basics of protocol and training, they are going to be a valued member of our team. If we can set that standard early in the hiring process, we don’t just get a warm body, we get a person who is as dedicated to the success of the district as they are to themselves. A symbiosis of their needs and goals with those of the district is a recipe for efficiency as well as success. 

Irrigation Leader: How does efficient communication within the district save it money? 

Shane Leonard: The phrase may seem cliched, but time is money, particularly in the case of urbanizing districts. For example, urbanizing districts struggle with the fact that as the total amount of water they are producing and delivering diminishes, the labor-hours necessary to make their remaining deliveries more than likely increases. Effective communication along the entire water supply chain, from the customer ordering the water to the zanjero making the delivery and everyone in between, is vital to a time- and money-efficient operation. 

Efficient communication covers more than verbal and written communication in today’s world. It also requires technology. For example, RWCD has been working with Assura Software for the past year to provide a platform that meets the current needs of our operations and the technology demands of a younger workforce. By partnering with Hamish Howard and Graeme Partridge of Assura, we’re ensuring that our software package enables, among other items, a robust reporting system for delivery issues, including flooding and low-head or no-head calls. Our intent is to significantly shorten the time between the moment when a delivery issue is noticed and the implementation of a solution. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the importance of forming working relationships with decisionmakers in Congress, and how RWCD does that? 

Shane Leonard: Establishing a relationship of trust and communication with elected officials and decisionmakers is vitally important. I believe that Congress and many legislatures in the western United States have lost focus on water and natural resources issues because the water community has lost its collective voice. RWCD, under its previous general manager (my father), made the decision to start reengaging on those topics at the state and federal levels in an attempt to recapture the opportunity to ensure that decisions regarding water were not occurring by happenstance or being made in a vacuum. There is simply too much at stake in an increasingly arid western climate for water managers and policymakers to not get on the same page for the common good of our constituents. The adoption of the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) by the Colorado basin states could not have occurred if it weren’t for the fact that entities like RWCD had open, honest, and forthright conversations with our congressional and state-level delegations. The unfortunate reality is that the DCP might not have happened but for the time of crisis we were in and the tremendous leadership shown by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman and her staff. It shouldn’t take a crisis and inordinate focus by federal representatives to get issues of this magnitude addressed sooner and in a much more comprehensive fashion. 

Irrigation Leader: How did you design your new building, and what are the advantages of being able to use it as a space for community events? 

Shane Leonard: The new building was 20 years in the making, which means that the design went through several different iterations and was thoroughly vetted by all, board members and employees alike. We wanted it designed for efficiency in workflow and communication. We wanted to ensure that we were taking advantage of current technologies while preserving the ability to use future technologies as they arise. 

An important aspect of our design focus was the need to maintain relationships with our current customers as well as to provide the opportunity to establish positive relationships with our new customers and the urbanizing community. We constructed a Legacy Park adjacent to the new office, which can house outdoor events, and reserved a large space on our second floor, where more-official community events can occur. I am pleased to report that our intent had the desired outcome. From the day we occupied the new building, we have hosted at least two public events a month, and that number was increasing prior to the implementation of COVID‑19-related restrictions. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the district’s planning horizon and how it plans for the future? 

Shane Leonard: We operate for today, but think and plan for the long term. More often than not, my horizon goes beyond the tenure of my employment as well as my lifetime. The decisions my senior staff, our board of directors, and I are making, the agreements we have entered and will enter into, and the infrastructure projects we’re planning are intended to benefit the district and its partners long after we’re gone. 

My father used to tell me that in all aspects, we should try to leave things a little better than we found them and that, rarely, we get a chance to leave them much better. That’s the horizon and the vision I plan for on behalf of RWCD. 

Shane M. Leonard is the general manager of the Roosevelt Water Conservation District. He can be contacted at s.leonard@rwcd.net.