Back in May, a speaker stepped to the podium in the Modesto Irrigation District boardroom.
"You men have a choice to make that can change the history of this community," said Todd Sill, a cattle rancher near Waterford.
He was talking about a proposal to sell some of the MID's water to San Francisco. He and other critics warned that it could mean shortages for farmers and Modesto-area domestic users in dry years.
The board finally settled the matter last week, voting 5-0 to drop the negotiations after nearly a year of fierce debate.
The vote indeed was a milestone in MID history, which started with securing rights to the Tuolumne River in the late 1800s and proceeded through dam and canal construction, the advent of hydropower and other advances.
By rejecting San Francisco's offer, with its very high price per acre-foot of water, the district passed up an opportunity for an outside source to pay for major upgrades on its canals.
The MID's next course likely will involve talking with farmers and other local interests about alternatives to pay for the upgrades.
"That's going to be a major topic of discussion," MID board Chairman Tom Van Groningen said in the hours after Tuesday's vote.
One option is raising water rates for farmers, some of whom acknowledge that their cost is low and that a modest increase would not hurt.
Another is exploring water sales to farmers who currently do not have access to the canals. Supporters say this would ease demands on groundwater and bolster the area's ag-based economy.
A third option is trimming the list of improvement projects. It totals about $115 million, much of it for small reservoirs that would capture water that spills out the ends of canals. Reusing this supply could have freed up water for future sales to San Francisco, in addition to the relatively small sale that was stopped last week.
Van Groningen and others have suggested creating an advisory committee to look at the options now that the San Francisco deal is off. They hope the committee would carry out its work without the rancor that marked the water sale debate.
Fears and assurances
And rancorous it has been since the proposal was first reported in The Bee a year ago this Wednesday.
MID officials assured, based on drought records, that the first sale could take place without harm to Modesto-area farmers or domestic users. They said the bigger sale would get plenty of study over at least a year.
Officials stressed that the district would be selling water, not water rights, and that the supply would come back after the proposed 50-year term in the first contract.
Critics thought ahead to 2062. They said drought patterns over that stretch could be worse than what happened before. They said environmentalists and regulators could demand more and more water for fish. They said San Francisco could find a way to seize the water rights, despite a contract clause that said it couldn't.
"This contract opens the door for economic disaster in Modesto," resident Reid Johnson said at the May meeting.
The protests continued on many Tuesday mornings that followed.
"Don't sell our water, and don't sell our grandchildren's water rights," Modesto resident Linda Hodges told the board last week before the closed-session vote to end the talks.
Although some farmers supported at least exploring the sales, the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau came out against them, out of concern for dry-year water shortages.
The city of Modesto also weighed in. Officials pointed to a 2005 agreement for supplying the water treatment plant, which said domestic and farm demand must be met before any water is sold to outside parties.
Environmental groups joined in the fight. They argued that if the MID has water available, it should go into the river, where salmon and other fish have suffered from low flows, high temperatures and pollution.
San Francisco officials stayed in the background. No one from the city pleaded for the sales at the MID board meetings or other forums.
But they made no secret of their desire for the first sale as a backup to their current Tuolumne River supply during droughts. The starting price of $700 per acre-foot, about 70 times what MID farmers pay this year, could be spread among the 2.6 million customers in four Bay Area counties served by the city's Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System.
The contract talks reopened twice this summer to deal with Modesto's concerns, to no avail. A San Francisco official said last week that his city could not accept the MID's proposals to reduce the sale volume in dry years and to have the right to cancel the deal at any time.
Thus ended one of the most vigorous public debates in the district's history.
Work lies ahead. The MID has plans for more precise measurement of water and other improvements as it tries to meet the needs of 21st-century farmers. It also faces an estimated $25 million share of the cost of a new federal hydropower license for Don Pedro Reservoir, a cost that the San Francisco income could have covered.
This process likely will mean increased releases into the lower river, as could upcoming state proceedings aimed at improving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
None of this might make for the kind of theater we saw in the boardroom on recent Tuesdays, but it will be crucial to the future of this 125-year-old district.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.