An Advocate for Montana Irrigated Agriculture

By Kris Polly

With a background in engineering, water resources, and irrigation and as a principal and cofounder of Performance Engineering, Scott Aspenlieder’s background equips him perfectly for his role as the president of the Montana Water Resources Association (MWRA). In that role, he works to protect water rights and keep policymakers apprised of the economic importance of irrigated agriculture amid the rapid development that parts of the state are experiencing. In our cover story, Mr. Aspenlieder tells us more about MWRA’s top issues and its important role. 

We also interview irrigated farmers on the ground: the Sheehan Family of central Washington. The Sheehans run their dairy and crop farm efficiently by reusing water and making use of technologies like efficient sprinklers, satellite imagery, and variable-rate application. 

The rest of this month’s issue focuses on California’s Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Established in 1887, Turlock Irrigation District was the first irrigation district in California. General Manager Michelle Reimers tells us about how today, it is actively investing in modernizing its infrastructure while moving forward with exciting initiatives such as Project Nexus, a pilot project for installing solar panel canopies over sections of its canals. 

Oakdale Irrigation District’s 2007 water resources plan mapped out a strategy for selling surplus water to fund system modernization, leading to more surplus. We speak with recently retired General Manager Steve Knell and Water Operations Manager and District Engineer Eric Thorburn to learn more about this cycle. 

The Friant Water Authority operates and maintains the Friant-Kern Canal, which supplies San Joaquin River water to more than 30 irrigation districts, but the canal’s capacity is being affected by overdraft-caused ground subsidence. CEO Jason Phillips tells about how the authority is responding. 

Daniele Zaccaria, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, and an agricultural water management specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, tells us about his research and outreach work on irrigation and water management. 

Modesto Junior College agriculture instructor Ryan Patterson tells us about the school’s irrigation and agriculture mechanics programs, which are giving students hands-on experience with new technologies, such as Rubicon gate systems. 

We also speak with Daniel Cozad, the executive director of the Central Valley Salinity Coalition, about the coalition’s efforts to address salt and nitrate infiltration to ensure a sustainable future for Central Valley agriculture. 

A thorough response to water supply and subsidence issues requires detailed knowledge of the aquifers below the surface, which the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is gathering through airborne electromagnetic surveying. Katherine Dlubac and Steven Springhorn of DWR tell us more about the valuable data this method supplies. 

Exciting advances in irrigation and water management are afoot in both Montana and California. I hope you enjoy learning more about them. 

Kris Polly is the editor-in-chief of Irrigation Leader magazine and the 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