Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Icicle-Peshastin Irrigation districts hire new manager


Tony Jantzer has swapped worries of broken pumps during the growing season in the Kittitas Valley for fears of a wash out high on one of the irrigation ditches that provide water to property owners in the upper Wenatchee Valley.

The new manager of the Icicle and Peshastin irrigation districts started Jan. 5, replacing Joel Teeley, who left the job in June.

Jantzer has been getting up to speed on the unique features of each district and how the separate entities, each governed by its own three-member board, work together.

The worries come with the territory, he said, since one of the manager's duties is figuring out how to avoid catastrophes.

The Cle Elum native managed the Cascade Irrigation District in Ellensburg for the past 15 years, returning to the area after retiring from the U.S. Air Force as a master sergeant. In the Kittitas Valley, he said, the 12,650-acre irrigation district relies on pumps to get water to farmers. Catastrophe there is when something happens to prevent the pumps from working during the growing season - a mechanical or electrical failure, with the repair delayed a month waiting for parts.

In the 8,000 or so acres of the Icicle and Peshastin districts, the irrigation water is mostly gravity fed, but the ditches and pipes are on steep hillsides, so a broken pipe or washed out ditch at the wrong time would be the equivalent catastrophe.

"It's scary to see all the hillside canals. It's a unique problem. It could be expensive if something happens. It's treacherous-type stuff. Not a lot of oopsey could cause a big problem," he said.

The steep terrain helps explains the budget for five year-round employees, five seasonal beat riders and another 10 or so temporary employees who help with maintenance in the spring and fall, Jantzer said.

"Most other districts use equipment for maintenance and repairs," he said. "But here, you can't get that equipment on the ditch banks. It must all be cleaned by hand with shovels. That's a lot of man hours."

In his old job, the big budget concern was the cost of electricity. He saw it climb from $92,000 to $256,000 a year in the past six or seven years.

"That's a good chunk when the overall budget is $500,000," he said.

According to the 2009 report from the state Auditor's Office, the Icicle Irrigation District has an average annual budget of $300,000, and the Peshastin Irrigation District's average annual budget is $400,000. The money comes from water assessments set by the respective boards for the property within the districts.

Jantzer said, catastrophic worries aside, one the tasks in his new job is putting in writing an interim interlocal agreement for the two boards to sign.

The two have been sharing staff and resources for years, he said, but have never put the agreement in writing.

Once that is accomplished, the next step is to talk about actually combining the two districts, a process that might take a year or more.

As it is, the staff meets separately with the two boards each month, often discussing the same issues. Sometimes a joint board meeting is added so commissioners can talk over the issues face to face.

Exactly what a merged district would look like is still unknown, but probably would mean turning the two three-member boards into one five-member board, taking two board members from each district and then having an at-large board member who owns property in both districts.

"We're still in preliminary talks about it," Jantzer said. "It makes sense to share resources. It's more cost-effective."

A merge would not effect the water rights, which stay with the ground, he said. The bigger issue is accounting for equipment, staff and facilities.

"I'm writing it all up. We have to plug in the numbers to make sure it's equitable for all the landowners, so each is paying their share of the costs of what they are getting. Not more and not less," he said.

The two districts are similar, but sometimes the perception is different.

"They've been doing pretty well in the past years, working closely together. We might be able to move that to the next step," he said.

Jantzer's other challenge is getting ready to complete projects that are already in process. That includes a project to pipe 2,000 feet of ditch above Peshastin, which was started as soon as the water was turned off this fall. About half the project was completed before winter set in. The remainder is on the list for this spring.

"It needs to be operating when the water is needed," he said. The irrigation water runs from April through September, leaving less then two months before and after to accomplish whatever is on the list.

Piping the canals has been an ongoing effort.

Jantzer said the water experts figure that an unlined ditch loses 40 percent of the water before it gets to the farmer, from seepage through the bottom of the ditch and from evaporation.

Figuring out how to pay for piping is a challenge. Federal grants are available.

"But there is no free money," Jantzer said.

Usually, in exchange for accepting a grant to fund a piping project, the irrigation district has to give up some of its water right, a portion of the water that would be saved by piping the canal. If the project needs to be replaced in a few years, with another grant, it might end up costing too much water in the long run.

"We're looking at piping some more in the fall, but we haven't decided whether to use federal money. If we don't, and can find a way to pay for it another way, we have more control. We get the savings and we get to keep the water rights," he said.

The water rights issues can be a hot button.

"Water is money. And it's getting more so every day. If farmers aren't getting the water they need at the right time, it effects everything - income, quality of life, property values," he said.

With the recent torrential rains, Jantzer also has been checking for flooding, a difficult task when much of the system is buried in snow.

"We came through this last storm with no damage, that can be seen at the moment," he said. "The ditch was over the headworks at the Icicle and we will have to remove a tree, but those things happen. Our concern is if we have a gully washer that creates a landslide or a mudslide that we can't spot now. You can't make it to all of the system this time of year."

So far so good, though.

The same is true on the home front, he said.

The job comes with a house in Peshastin, which is being remodeled to get use of a second bedroom and adding a bathtub to accommodate his family. In the meantime, he and his wife and 9-year-old son are staying with relatives.

Being closer to family was one of the reasons he applied for the job here.

"The house should be ready this week," he said.

While the family gets settled, he said, his other goal is introducing himself to the rest of the community.

"I want to make sure people know I'm here and that I have a open door policy. They can call me anytime, unless it's after 10 p.m or before 6 a.m. 433-4064."

Nevonne McDaniels can be reached at 548-5286 or reporter@cashmerevalleyrecord.com.



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