New irrigation manager takes reins during historic drought
In May, Josh Bailey, 45, took over as general manager of the North Unit Irrigation District just as farmers got the smallest water allotments on record, as unprecedented 113-degree heat scorched the region, and as some farmers threaten mutiny. And now, he and his family, and some of his coworkers are battling COVID.
"If I had a dollar for every person who said, 'It sucks to be you'," says Bailey, "I'd be a rich man."
Bailey does not count himself a rich man, not by bank account standards anyway, but he has amassed a wealth of experience he believes prepared him to weather the storms ahead for the NUID.
Small town roots
Bailey grew up in Big Bear Lake, California, a small-town ski getaway east of Los Angeles surround by the San Bernadino National Forest.
After graduating high school, he signed up as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. Shortly after he left the service, Bailey launched his construction business, Joshua Bailey Construction Inc. Over the course of 19 years, he built custom homes, served as president of the local contractors association, and shepherded his business through two economic recessions.
"That's why I can empathize as a business owner," says Bailey. "I had to lay off 25 employees. That was just gut-wrenching. I felt responsible for the livelihood of those 25 families."
He believes those hardships prepared him to understand the impact of cutting back water allotments to the farmers.
"That just torpedoed their plans for the season," says Bailey.
Big Bear Lake lost its small-town charm when Mammoth Ski Resorts took over. "It was like someone flipped a switch," says Bailey. "The town was always busy, always crazy."
The Baileys wanted that "hometown nostalgia," and he took a job running a private irrigation company in northern California.
"That's where I learned to engineer and design massive irrigation pumping systems," says Bailey. He was responsible for the entire operation. Two-thirds of the work involved government contracts. He ran five crews that sold, installed and maintained irrigation systems.
When the choice ultimately came down to becoming a partner in the business, he chose to leave. He didn't want the added stress.
That's when he applied for the position of water master and construction supervisor at NUID.
"Over the past two years, I've learned the public aspect of the public organization," says Bailey.
As Mike Britton, NUID manager for 13 years, prepares to retire, Bailey stepped into the general manager position.
Stepping into the fire
He had no idea the challenges his first year would bring.
"We expected a similar year as last year when we ran out of water mid-September," says Bailey. This season the shortage means shutting water off mid-August. "Nobody predicted 117-degree heat, the lack of precipitation, the lack of live flow."
Bailey inherited the Habitat Conservation Plan that reserves water in the Deschutes Basin for endangered species, specifically for spotted frog and bull trout. After 12 years of negotiations, irrigation districts and environmental groups finalized the document in January, and in its first year, the lack of water devastated Jefferson County farmers.
Two months into the job, Bailey found himself standing in front of 150 farmers seething with frustration, some ready to sue environmentalists, some ready to forfeit the frog and pay the penalty.
"Breaking the HCP would involve lawsuits and possible prison time," said Bailey. "I'm willing to do a lot of things for you. Prison is not one of them."
"But would that only be you going to prison, Josh?" countered one of the farmers.
Bailey laughed it off and farmers took note.
"That meeting had the potential of becoming quite contentious," says farmer Jeff Whitaker. "He was basically thrown into the fire on the coals. And he was very calm, and I was just impressed with how he handled that. I think he's a good guy."
Handing off the baton
"This is a job that takes years and years to learn and be comfortable with," says Britton, who plans to retire in March. "I've been doing this for almost 20 years between here and California, and I still learn stuff on a weekly basis, something new. Particularly during challenging times, you learn a lot for sure."
During this transition period, Britton has the title executive manager and takes on major projects like the Lake Billy Chinook pumping station and working with political connections to get money for the districts and support for farmers.
"It's a long transition period," says Britton. His and Bailey's terms will overlap by 10 months. "It will take some time to work on developing and maintaining the relationships I've developed over the years."
Britton expects to manage projects for the district in some capacity after he retires.
"I'm glad Josh stepped up," says Britton. "It hasn't been easy, but if he can survive this year, he can survive anything."
For such a time as this
Bailey looks over his life at the things that shaped his character.
When he was 23, his grandmother gave him $1,500. He used it as a down payment on a house. It's the only gift of import he's ever received.
"Everything I have, everything I've earned, I've had to work really hard," says Bailey.
When he was 27, he lost his father to alcoholism. He had to play a father role to his younger siblings.
The circumstances of his early life don't exactly draw a blueprint for success.
"It was absolutely God's grace. There is no reason I should be as blessed and fortunate as I am," says Bailey. "My wife, Jessica, is a tremendous support and help to me."
Maybe life taught him grit, his business experience gave him know-how, and his faith tempered him with grace.
"Maybe I've been put here for such a time as this," says Bailey quoting the Old Testament book of Esther.
"I don't want people to think I'm God's answer to the problem," says Bailey, "but I'm not going to turn tail and run. There's a resolve in me to gut it out and do what I can do."
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