By Nikki Jamieson
Westwind Weekly News
A longtime manager at the Raymond Irrigation District is leaving.
After 43 years at RID, on Sept. 1, Gordon ZoBell retired as the general manager of the irrigation district, and is remaining on in an advisory capacity until the end of December.
“That’s a long time when you think about it; 43-and-a-half years to work at the same place. I love my job, I’ll miss my job, but I’ve got sons that, in the meantime, have developed a construction company, I have my own farm that I, over the years, have acquired, and I still, hopefully, got enough energy in me that I can enjoy these things and work with my sons and operate my farm for an additional 10 years or so, and allow new, fresh ideas and a new generation to take over,” said ZoBell. “I feel we’ve left the district in good hands.”
ZoBell noted that many people had asked him if he was going to receive anything for working that long at the district. However, he says he looks at his time at the district as a “great privilege”.
“I look at my last job as a stewardship, and I was given this great opportunity at a very young age to grow into something, to be entrusted by a board of directors of the day, that took a chance with a young guy, that at least I was smart enough to surround myself with people more able to me, and what a privilege it has been. And I got paid for it, to assist the farmers of the Raymond Irrigation District, to build a system that we’re proud of today that we continue to build, and we’ve got a wonderful firm template that these new guys can follow. We’ve got a solid board of directors, good strong leadership with great vision that are looking after the farmers in this district. What a great time to live, what a positive time. Agriculture is where it’s at, and I’m not really stepping out, I’m just kind of stepping aside and looking with wonder at what they’re going to accomplish.”
ZoBell started working at the irrigation district on April 1, 1977. Back then, ZoBell said they only had one full-time employee who was in his 70s, and the manager was a chartered accountant in Raymond.
ZoBell had grown up on the family farm in the area — where he still lives today — and the board of directors for the district had thought the 21-year-old’s knowledge of the area would be an asset. ZoBell said he has never felt a desire to leave the area, noting the only problem with it was “we don’t have a sign that says Garden of Eden”.
“To me, it’s the most wonderful part of the whole earth, I never wanted to leave.”
He had also started to lay down his own roots in the area, marrying his wife Joan in 1975, and had previously worked at the Town of Raymond, when he met the then-manager of the irrigation district.
“This chartered accountant saw me working and operating the ice skating rink in Raymond one winter, and thought maybe I would be a fit for this position with the Raymond Irrigation District, so he asked me to apply for the job, and I did.”
When he started working for the district, they had one backhoe on one truck and no office, as employees had simply provided places to park the backhoe and truck, and they received assistance from community members to help when needed, with local contractors assisting with maintenance and rehabilitation.
After he was hired, they had began renting an office space, and the district sent ZoBell to the local community college for a few semesters.
“I already had an aptitude for equipment, so I knew how to run equipment, and they sent me for a basic survey course and map reading, a pesticide course and those kinds of things.”
After two years of working pretty much by himself, the other employee, who was about 74-years old at that point, decided to leave the district, and ZoBell was told to hire someone to replace him with. He made a phone call to Mark Jensen, his best friend since Grade 1, and he agreed to come and work for the district. He also hired another individual to come and do the books for the district, as the general manager had left the district. On Jan. 1, 1981, he became the district’s general manager, and over the years, they “picked up” different people to work with the district.
“I surrounded myself with people more able than me, because I heard that a good manager did that, so in my opinion, I was a good manager because I surrounded myself with people more able than me, and away we went on the road.”
One of the biggest challenges Zobell had at the district was working with an antiquated system. It had been built at the turn of the century before being sold from CPR to farmers of the area in 1925, and by the time ZoBell had started in the late 1970s, the district had just put in a drainage ditch system to take the waste water east.
“They put a good drainage system in, but we didn’t have a good irrigation system. It was antiquated, it was an open ditch system that was undersized. We didn’t have a good capacity, main feeder system. So that is what we went to work to — with assistance from the province — to rehabilitate”.
Over the years, the government gave them around $30 million through programs such as the Irrigation Rehabilitation Program. They were able to get the equipment and manpower needed to put in “miles and miles” of rehabilitated ditches and pipelines. One thing they never did was put in concrete-lined canals, which ZoBell said was lucky as it turned out to be a “failed technology”, as due to frost issues in southern Alberta it became a way to “manufacture rubble”.
“We have the majority of our system now in pipeline, with still many more hopes and dreams going forward to even improve the system better with even more pipelines, and pipelines that will tie us into the headworks system, which is a little higher than we are, the main feeder system that comes into the district,” said ZoBell. “We envision someday a system that will not require pumps. It will be a gravity system that ties into our pipeline sand eliminate all of the pumping requirements.”
“We envision this wonderful system that will see our district gravity pressure operated. We’re working towards that.”
About 20 per cent of the district still needs to be changed over from open ditch into pipeline, in addition to tying all the pipelines into a main feeder pipeline to create a gravity-pressure system. ZoBell notes it is an expensive venture, with the district needing about $60 million to complete the work.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel, because farmers will be willing to pay more for their rate, because they realize it won’t be going towards an energy bill, but towards paying off a debenture that will eliminate their energy needs going forward. It also will take a lot of tons of carbon out of the system, because we won’t be using any fossil-fuelled energy to make the electricity that we’re currently using.”
One notable event was in 1992, when the St. Mary River Irrigation District — who is the RID’s “big brother” — put in some power plants to tap into the energy that was being wasted from water coming through the drop structures. RID had built three power plants, two which came online in 1994 and one in 2004, at a cost of about $54 million. RID’s share of that was 10 per cent, and the local farmers had agreed to “take that risk”, and today, the first two plants are paid off and are generating revenue, and the third will be paid off soon. The total output of the three plants is about 38 megawatts.
“It was meant to be for the farmer of tomorrow, so tomorrow has arrived, and we’re reaping the benefits from good, green energy being provided into the grid in southern Alberta from these three power plants.”
RID has also collaborated with some solar farms in 2019, to help assist in paying for pumping, an cut costs in the long term.
In addition to his farm and helping his sons with their construction company, ZoBell plans on enjoying his retirement by spending time with his wife Joan, their six children, 24 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A couple of their daughters live in Montana, where they also have a place, and they look forward to spending time there. They will also continue to give service at their church.
“With a family that large, and with boys also in construction, my wife has always been a stay-at-home mom, the farm has allowed her to be that. We intend to firmly enjoy our family more, between our home here and our little place in Montana and our daughters that are down there with their families. We expect to have a wonderful life going forward enjoying our family and being busy with them.”