Legal threat, foes force MID to hold off on SF water sale vote

jholland@modbee.comMay 18, 2012 

TLB MID 3

TRACY BARBUTES / tbarbutes@modbee.com The Modesto Irrigation District offices in downtown Modesto, Calif., on October 10, 2011.

TRACY BARBUTES — Modesto Bee

— Facing the threat of legal action by the city of Modesto and strong opposition from others, the Modesto Irrigation District has canceled Tuesday's planned vote on a water sale to San Francisco.

The district announced Friday that the sale would be delayed while contract talks with San Francisco resume. MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said she could not say exactly what details are being reconsidered.

Critics have said the draft contract had no protections during drought for farmers or the city, which provides treated MID water to homes and businesses.

Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said city-hired attorneys sent a letter Friday to the MID and San Francisco expressing serious concerns about the proposal. Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff sent a similar letter in November when the proposal became public.

"I want to ensure that the citizens of Modesto and our farmers are in first position, that we have priority over an outside-of-the-area contract," the mayor said.

The city's three-page letter refers to the 2005 agreement that requires the MID to deliver more than 30 million gallons of water a day to Modesto — with plans to double that when the next phase of the water treatment plant is completed. The letter warns that the proposal to sell about 2 million gallons a day to San Francisco could constitute a "breach" of city contract and violate a section of the state water code regulating transfers.

MID General Manager Allen Short and board President Tom Van Groningen, who have championed the sale to San Francisco, could not be reached for comment Friday night. Earlier this week, Van Groningen said he was willing to amend the contract to address concerns.

The draft contract for the initial sale would have given San Francisco preference over other water agencies for future sales. Critics said this could have denied water to San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts that are in need of it.

John Duarte, a nursery executive who has been among the leading critics, said there are no revisions that could make the contract acceptable. Its purpose is to boost San Francisco's supply during drought, he said, but that's when the MID and Modesto need the water.

"Trimming around the edges of a very, very, very bad contract will not resolve the problem we have, which is that we don't have the water to sell," Duarte said.

MID board member Larry Byrd has opposed the proposal since it emerged in the fall. He said the initial sale contract would give too much preference to San Francisco over the needs of the MID and Modesto.

The city's letter says Modesto officials are willing to meet with their MID and San Francisco counterparts "to amicably resolve this problem."

Though it will not vote Tuesday, the five-member board will hold an informal discussion of the proposal.

The initial sale would be 2,240 acre-feet of Tuolumne River water per year to San Francisco, which gets most of its supply from higher up the river. This is about 1 percent of the district's annual deliveries to farmers.

The price would start at $700 per acre-foot, about 70 times what farmers pay this year.

The board also could have voted Tuesday to launch an environmental study on a potential sale of an additional 25,000 acre-feet per year. That water would be freed by conservation projects on the canal system, funded by the income from San Francisco, according to the proposal.

The initial sale would have no effect on the MID and Modesto supplies, said Steven Ritchie, assistant general manager for the water enterprise at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

Concerns about the larger sale would be addressed in the environmental study, he said.

Board member Paul Warda said this week that he was concerned about the lack of drought protection in the first sale contract. He said he is leery of the larger sale, too, because it could give regulators the impression that the MID has extra water that could go to fisheries.

Environmentalists have, in fact, raised alarms about the sales. They have said that if the MID has water available, it should go into the Tuolumne River to enhance its depleted fishery.

The sales would help supply the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, which serves about 2.6 million people in San Francisco and three other Bay Area counties.

The MID board will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the district office, 1231 11th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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