Going with the Flow, Thad Bettner

Friday, Feb 10th, 2023

While some prefer to just “go with the flow” – Thad Bettner is the flow.

He is the one constant motion, continuously engaging the journey even if it seems riddled with challenges along the way. Active is a perfect adjective for a man who spends his days entrenched in water resource and environmental management issues as head of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District.

His journey to the general manager position started in a small town south of Santa Barbara named Carpinteria, a spot famous to surfers looking to ride the waves off Rincon Point or to those who can’t resist a sprawling ocean view as they hike the western slope of the Los Padres National Forest.

“For me, it didn’t matter what it was, as long as it was outside. My brothers and I were always at the beach – it seemed as if we practically lived in the water,” says Bettner.

Outside is also where Bettner was during breaks from school, staying with his grandfather in Los Banos. While the Central Valley didn’t have waves, it had seemingly endless ponds of water in the wintertime that were perfect for duck hunting. Those early mornings on the wetlands gave Bettner a deep appreciation for not only the environment, but the wildlife that called the open space home. It is a feeling that would come full circle several decades later.

After high school, Bettner didn’t venture far. Remaining on the Central Coast, he attended California Polytechnic – San Luis Obispo, studying Agricultural Engineering with a focus in water delivery. The path seemed only fitting for someone who never seems to stop, and for an industry where movement is everything, whether that is capturing moving water for storage, sending it out to irrigate fields, delivering safe drinking water for people or meeting the needs of the environment.

“I was able to apply my undergraduate work on optimizing efficiencies in water deliveries to help the Fresno Irrigation District become a leader in water management practices. There was a strong desire to uncover the best way to deliver water when landowners needed it while also minimizing water loss during key times of the year.”

Various drought cycles had forced many farmers to turn to heavy groundwater pumping. Bettner and the FID team began one of the first groundwater recharge programs in the state.

“It was something 30 years ago that wasn’t top of mind in the industry, but we knew it was all connected. We couldn’t have adequate surface supply without knowing the state of the groundwater system.”

Accepting a job with GCID in 2006, Bettner was faced with a new set of challenges as well as opportunities. As the largest irrigation district in the Sacramento Valley, GCID spans 175,000 acres, with nearly 80% of them irrigable. Managing the needs of landowners and wildlife habitat is no easy task.

When he needs a break, Bettner finds a bit of solitude on his Fuji 20-speed road bike.

“The ride offers me the chance to burn off some energy but also think about ways to best tackle some of our biggest hurdles, a chance to look and listen.”

With drought years piling up along with water regulations, the job is no longer just about how to irrigate farmlands. Bettner and the GCID landowners understand that the water they receive must be put to work multiple times to create benefits for fish, birds and people year-round.

“We have a duty to make sure we can sustainably grow crops throughout the district to continue to feed millions of people, but it also means we must find ways to improve and maintain habitat and food sources for birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway, our local terrestrials, and the Chinook salmon that navigate the Sacramento River.”

From spawning and rearing habitat to fish screens to flooding rice fields for waterfowl and shore birds, to managing flows for temperature needs of salmon, GCID is thinking beyond its boundaries to reinvigorate an ecosystem ignored for far too long.

“These choices don’t come easy, but we can’t just look at everything in a vacuum. Every decision has a tradeoff and an impact somewhere and we need to be honest and transparent to ensure the best possible balance for all.”

When he feels limited by roads or trails, Bettner has found an unlimited amount of space in the skies above. From the pilot seat of a Cessna 182 Skyline single-engine airplane, he looks down upon the farm fields and irrigation canals sprawling in all directions. From here, he often finds a new perspective.

“I enjoy seeing things from a different point of view, it reminds you how connected every dot of land and every drop of water is to another throughout the valley, we live and work in an amazing place and that perspective makes me and others want to work hard to protect it.”

Most of us when stuck in constant motion, would tend to miss much of what surrounds us. But it seems the waves, the road and the sky offer Bettner the perfect balance to see not only the best way forward but the alternate viewpoint as well. It has helped him solve complex problems in the past and is offering a sense of confidence to address future issues as well. In a new era of water management, it is exactly what will help achieve the greatest results.

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