Job alert: The Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District, which serves nearly 30,000 acres of farms in Kern County, is hiring a new general manager. But what exactly does the general manager of an irrigation district do? It’s a question that isn’t easily answered, even by water executives themselves.
“I found it very hard to describe what I do,” said Dale Brogan, interim general manager for the Shafter-Wasco Irrigation District. “My kids were convinced I must work for the CIA.”
Brogan managed the Delano-Earlimart Irrigation District in Tulare and Kern counties for 28 years. He’s helping to fill the role at Shafter-Wasco until someone is hired on permanently.
But, unless districts “grow their own,” finding qualified candidates for executive water positions is proving difficult these days. Many of the most qualified people are starting to retire.
The role of water district general managers requires a range of skills from administrative to political. General managers are responsible for developing and overseeing district-wide work plans, administering policies, developing a budget and representing the district’s interests to government agencies.
“You can’t help but get involved in local, state and national politics,” said Brogan.
Some water district managers have engineering backgrounds, some have degrees in other subjects such as economics or environmental science. But above all, water district managers have to understand the ebb and flow of water in and around their districts and how to provide as much water as possible to their landowners.
Valerie Roberts, president of Roberts Consulting Group Inc., is leading the recruitment process for Shafter-Wasco. She has helped hire water executives for Friant Water Authority, San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and Mojave Water Agency, among other water entities.
“What we’re finding a lot nowadays is a lot of people are nearing retirement,” said Roberts,
Other consultants are seeing the same thing.
“Recruiting has become significantly more difficult in recent years due to the vast number of retirements in public agencies and more and more individuals exiting public service,” wrote Heather Renschler, president/CEO of Ralph Andersen & Associates, in an email.
Renschler called this wave of retirements the “Silver Tsunami.”
For others, building a district’s future leadership is an ongoing project that starts from within.
At Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District in Kern County, general manager Dan Bartel is working with two young recent graduates.
“What shortage of young folks?” wrote Bartel in an email. “We are building a highly skilled team for today and the future of Rosedale.”
The district hired a Cal Poly engineer technology grad, Markus Nygren, a few years ago and last year brought on Rachelle Echeverria, a UC Santa Barbara grad with an environmental science degree.
“They are learning faster than we could have expected and bringing a fresh perspective,” Bartel wrote. The district also recently hired Trent Taylor away from the Kern County Water Agency to serve as Rosedale-Rio Bravo’s new water resource manager. Taylor graduated from California State University, Bakersfield with a degree in Business Administration.
Bartel said the district no longer celebrates “administrative professionals day,” (April 27 in case you were wondering), but instead acknowledges “future managers day.”
That “grow your own” philosophy may be one way to get past several built in hurdles to water management jobs in the San Joaquin Valley, including offering competitive pay for California’s higher cost of living and the fact that these jobs are mostly in the “other California.”
“It’s hard getting people to move into the valley if they’re not already here or have some tie to the valley,” said Jason Gianquinto, general manager of Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County.
Gianquinto said many qualified candidates are often outside the Central Valley and it can be hard to entice them to move. He said it’s a problem not just for general manager positions, but engineers and other managerial staff also.
Gianquinto became the deputy general manager when the previous general manager was getting ready to retire. When the time came to step up and fill the role, Gianquinto was well positioned. He said something similar may happen when he decides to retire but it’s up to the board of directors whether they will promote internally or recruit someone new.
Salaries for these positions vary but are typically in the six figures. Dana Munn, former general manager for Shafter-Wasco, made nearly $190,000 in 2018. And Eric Averett, former general manager for Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District, made $305,000 the same year, according to Transparent California, a nonprofit website that tracks the salaries and benefits to public employees.
There is no set salary yet for the general manager position at Shafter-Wasco. It will depend on the chosen candidate’s skills and experience, said Brogan.