By Karen Billing
After 15 years, Robert “Bud” Irvin is leaving his post on the Santa Fe Irrigation District board. He leaves the district satisfied that they are financially strong, that a solid staff is in place and that the pipes will last longer than his lifetime.
“A lot of people encouraged me not to retire, but it’s time,” said Irvin, 76. “A person shouldn’t hog a position that long.”
The Solana Beach resident has a degree in chemistry and an MBA and was first appointed to the board with the understanding he’d just fill out the rest of a vacated term. The rest of the term became another four years and then another four and so on.
It was challenging work, but he is proud of what he was able to accomplish in that time.
“When I joined the board 15 years ago there were all kinds of problems with the water district, mostly because we weren’t really professional at the time,” Irvin said. “The district is now in outstanding shape. It’s just 100 times better now than it was.”
Irvin worked to oversee changes everywhere, from replacing valves that wouldn’t even open properly to helping fill out an expert staff.
“We’ve got an outstanding team, they think first about what’s best for the district,” Irvin said. “My biggest concern is that we might lose some of those people because they’re so highly qualified that other districts might hire them away from us.”
In the last 15 years, according to Irvin, “the district has maintained one of the lowest rates in the county; become the only AAA bond-rated water agency in the county; won six top awards for accounting and reporting; and has not incurred new debt in the last 10 years.”
When Irvin came on board, the district didn’t have an asset management plan in place.
“We established a 10-year plan to replace the aging system,” Irvin said. “Pipes can last 50 years and we had a lot of pipe that was over 50 years old.”
With his background as a submariner in the military, Irvin understood the importance of upkeep. He said other districts may experience a lot of water breaks, mainly because they have deferred maintenance in order to keep water rates down. But he said the longer districts wait to make replacements, the more it is going to end up costing.
He is very proud of the maintenance program Santa Fe Irrigation now has in place.
The district has conducted several ratepayer surveys and “generally we’ve done a good job, we don’t get very many complaints,” Irvin said.
He said that certain people in recent years have raised complaints about rates and employee benefits.
Irvin said the district has negotiated new agreements with employees and established a new second tier pension program. Employees now pay 8 percent toward retirement and they have reduced medical benefits for future employees.
Irvin encourages voters to get to know the candidates who are up for election on Nov. 6.
Incumbent Kenneth Dunford and candidate Greg Gruzdowich are vying for the division number one seat, while Holly Smith Jones and Alan Smerican are running to take Irvin’s place, the division number two seat.
Irvin said the winning candidates will take on challenging issues such as the water desalination plant in Carlsbad, which Santa Fe will have to share costs on and could kick up water rates by 5 percent. The board will also look at the Bay-Delta area pipe and who will be picking up the tab, Northern California or Southern California.
He said it is most important to have a board that can continue to work well together and make the best decisions for the district.
“The board doesn’t all agree all the time, but it works very hard together as a team, I’m proud of that,” Irvin said.
By stepping away from the board, Irvin will focus more time on family. He and his wife have three children and now have 12 grandchildren scattered across the United States and a great-grandchild due next year. They have a motor home that they use to visit all of those grandchildren — driving out to spots such as Texas, Indiana and Illinois.
While he’s looking forward to taking more of those trips without hurrying back to get to an irrigation district meeting, when he’s in town he expects to continue to drop in on the district.
“I’ll still go to meetings, I’ll have my say and they’ll decide whether or not to ignore me,” Irvin said. “The agency will stand on its own with me or without me. They’re in very good shape.”