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Josh Bailey will be the new general manager of North Unit Irrigation District

TONY AHERN/MADRAS PIONEER
 - Irrigation season began earlier this month with water filling the canals. With low water expected in 2021, irrigators are focusing on smarter dispersal systems and water conservation.

North Unit Irrigation District General Manager Mike Britton has announced his retirement, but will stay on through the end of March 2022 during a transition period.

Britton, who became NUID general manager on July 1, 2008, said his goal was to retire at age 60, and he will turn 60 in October.

"My wife's family and my family are both in California. She wanted to be closer to her mother and family, and I wanted to be young enough to do other things," he said of his decision.

Giving the North Unit board a year's notice will allow plenty of time for the adjustment. "With the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) just starting up, I can make sure everything falls into place and get one year under our belt with the HCP," he said.

Britton is the past president and current vice president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control, which helped negotiate the habitat conservation plan.

PIONEER FILE PHOTO
 - Mike Britton, who has been the North Unit Irrigation District general manager since 2008, has also been a regional leader for irrigation causes, including serving as president of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control. He plans to retire next March.  The North Unit board hired the new manager internally, and Britton will be working with Josh Bailey through the transition. Bailey currently is North Unit's construction superintendent and watermaster, and will be promoted to general manager on May 1. He has worked for NUID since June 2019.

Although the Brittons will be moving to Northern California after March 2022, Britton will still have a connection to NUID.

"I will be able to work on some projects that I haven't been able to get to, so I'll bounce back and forth from California and Madras," he said, adding, "I'm just stepping away from the daily grind of the manager's job."

For the upcoming irrigation season, Britton and Bailey will have several challenges. Farmers' water allotments this year are 1 acre-feet of water per acre for Deschutes acres, and .50 acre-feet per acre for Crooked River acres.

"That's the lowest allotment for the district since 1976, looking at a chart dating to 1976, or quite possibly in the district's history. It's quite a challenge when you add in the water requirements for the (spotted) frog and fish with drought. But really, the past 10 years have been really dry as far as snowpack and precipitation. This past March was the driest March in our 30-year record," Britton said.

During his 13 years with NUID, Britton said the main focus was on piping canals to conserve water, and as a result, maintenance issues were deferred. "But last year and this year, we will be able to get to many of them," he said.

Last Thursday, Britton said the snowpack has at 100% of average, but the level at Wickiup Reservoir was only 114,735 acre-feet (full capacity is 200,000 acre-feet), another record low to start the irrigation season.

For 2022, he said, "Looking at the watershed plan, we'll fire up piping again at the south end of the district, and with all the federal funding coming, hopefully we'll be able to take advantage of that."

NUID already has $25 million in federal funding assigned for piping projects, but needs to come up with matching funds. To qualify for the funding, the district has to develop a watershed plan, which takes into account conservation and economies.

To deal with another drought year and labor shortages, he said farmers are letting more land lie fallow than last year, and are installing more efficient irrigation systems.

"I've seen several new (irrigation) pivots going up, and managing a pivot with your cell phone is easier than managing labor," he remarked.

New pivot technology includes water-saving nozzles that spray closer to the ground, rather than sprinkling overhead, and another type that drags water sprinkler hoses on the ground as the pivot rotates.

"Farmers are having to be more creative and innovative," Britton said.

In a pilot project, NUID and Central Oregon Irrigation District (Bend and Redmond area) are working on transferring water from COID's conservation efforts for use in NUID.

Britton explained that with more urbanized lands in Bend and Redmond, when housing is built on what previously was farmland, the water rights come off the land and are held in a trust for COID. COID could then transfer that water to NUID.

"Fifty acres of water will transfer to NUID to see how it will be managed and what hurdles pop up," Britton said of the pilot project, adding, "If it looks doable, more acres will become available."


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