MODESTO -- Competing interests in Tuolumne River water came into focus Friday as farmers, city officials and environmentalists staked claims to precious but finite flows.
The lively discussion veered into topics that might not be directly related, such as groundwater pumping and irrigation districts charging more for electricity to keep farmers' irrigation bills low.
In 2016, federal energy officials are expected to decide whether to renew a hydropower license for Don Pedro Reservoir, owned by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. Friday's meeting was staged to help consultants gauge how much the reservoir 40 miles east of Modesto means to people.
They got an earful, despite the audience's relatively small size.
Tom Orvis of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau noted that the area's economy has yet to rebound to the extent of other, more affluent regions. Agriculture, he said, "is still very important, and this water is a big part of it."
Peter Drekmeier of the Tuolumne River Trust said farmers and environmentalists don't necessarily have to fight. "We have a vision of a vibrant ag economy and a vibrant river and we don't see it as mutually exclusive," Drekmeier said. Better management could be the key, he continued, noting that the MID had based a proposal to sell water to San Francisco on plans to capture "excess" water escaping from inefficient canals.
"My feeling is this is kind of set up to protect the status quo," or water rights favoring farmers, Drekmeier said. He urged developing a "blueprint on how to meet all needs in a changing world."
John Devine, of the consulting firm HDR, assured people the five-year process is not rigged. "We're still out there looking for more information. We don't want to have missed anything that's relevant," he said.
Value set at $700
MID leaders abandoned the San Francisco idea in September, but Bill Lyons, a rancher and former MID director, said repercussions persist. "Now you have a $700-per-acre-foot figure from a viable buyer. Whether you agree or disagree (on selling), it sets a value," Lyons said.
Ross Campbell, a former Modesto public works director, said consultants should be aware of an emerging debate over electricity customers subsidizing farmers. An MID contract lawyer warned board members that the transfer might violate a 2010 state tax law, The Bee revealed three weeks ago.
Farmers deserve credit for replenishing groundwater, Modesto's Joan Rutschow said.
A Modesto employee said aquifers under the city shrank in years past, rebounded a couple of years ago and again are on the decline.
Levels under Turlock, Denair and Ceres are dropping faster, Campbell said, and areas east of Oakdale might be more critical because of a startling jump in nut orchards on thousands of acres fed by pumped groundwater, leaving less for neighbors.
"It's all connected," Campbell said. He also urged consultants to consider the effects of climate change, because some experts predict dramatically different Sierra snow patterns in coming decades.
Modesto relies on treated Don Pedro water to help dilute uranium and arsenic commonly found in well water. The two sources are mixed before arriving clean in customers' taps, a city employee said.
Devine and other consultants are in a two-year study phase to document the value of Don Pedro, built in 1971. Some results came to light Friday, including:
Crops nourished by the MID and TID are worth about $1,820 per acre.
The MID and TID received a combined $608 million from 211,000 electricity customers in 2011.
Farmland in the MID and TID last year was worth about $18,500 an acre as much as 20 times rangeland value and higher than farmland in the Merced Irrigation District.
Thirty-five studies should wrap up in the spring. A draft license application should be circulated in about a year, with a final version ready by April 2014.
Comments can be submitted at www.donpedro-relicensing. com.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.
Decision on houseboat fee increase is put off
A decision on houseboat owners paying sharply higher fees at Don Pedro Reservoir was delayed Friday until Dec. 14.
Owners of 257 houseboats are up in arms over increases of 72 percent to 85 percent over three years proposed by Forever Resorts, which runs the two marinas at the lake 40 miles east of Modesto.
Larry Byrd, a Modesto Irrigation District board member appointed to a Board of Control overseeing lake issues, abruptly stepped down Friday because he owns a houseboat at the lake.
The remaining two Board of Control members heard two hours of testimony and put off a decision to review options, including a less dramatic increase.