It has been my great honor to meet many irrigation district managers and to learn about their different management and leadership styles. Mark Zirschky, district superintendent for the Pioneer Irrigation District, is one of my favorite kinds of irrigation leaders, because he is a listener. Quiet and soft-spoken by nature, Mark is not one who talks to hear himself speak. He is an observer, and he is interested in making improvements and solving problems. I met Mark in Melbourne, Australia, as he was a participant in our Australia irrigation tour last February. Over the course of our tour, I was able to get to know Mark and learn more about his district. Beginning as a ditch rider right out of high school and rising through the jobs to superintendent is impressive. Such experience provides a great understanding of all the necessary functions of an irrigation district and an appreciation for the unique challenges and responsibilities of its workers.

During his short, six-year tenure as superintendent, Mark has implemented several infrastructure improvements and automated efficiencies for Pioneer’s delivery system. He created a safety program that reduced the district’s insurance premiums while making a better working environment for his people. Additionally, he has upgraded the district’s communications and recordkeeping by using smartphones and a specialized app for his ditch riders.

Mark is open to anything that makes an improvement, increases safety, and saves money. That sounds like a simple thing to be about and to do. However, the reality of finding solutions and implementing changes can be difficult. One of the secrets to Mark’s success is that he listens to people and learns from their experiences. He is also quick to give others credit for their ideas. It was not Mark’s idea to have a monthly safety meeting; his good friend Greg Curtis of the Nampa and Meridian Irrigation District thought of that. Such examples may seem small or inconsequential to some people, but they are indications of a highly effective mindset in seeking solutions.

Mark’s advice is a testament of his openness to the ideas of others. “It is important to allow your employees to lead and feel like their ideas are important. We may all learn better ways of doing things by allowing our employees to be heard and think outside the box.” Listening is key

Kris Polly is editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and president of Water Strategies LLC, a government relations firm he began in February 2009 for the purpose of representing and guiding water, power, and agricultural entities in their dealings with Congress, the Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal government agencies. He may be contacted at