Modesto -- An advisory committee charged with offering ideas to improve the Modesto Irrigation District met Friday for its first substantive meeting and quickly determined it has a ton of work to do.
Chairman Jim Mortensen described a library of district documents, some dating to the 1800s, which he's started combing through in a quest to figure out and suggest how to put the MID on a better path, and how to pay for it.
He and the committee's six other members seemed eager to dig in. They brainstormed approaches to tricky irrigation challenges ranging from groundwater regulations to rickety flumes and new holding reservoirs.
"It continues to grow and gets bigger every minute," Mortensen said. "I don't know how much of this we can take on as a committee, to be honest."
The committee was created in the wake of a contentious battle over the notion of selling water to San Francisco, which the board dropped in September under intense public pressure and threat of a lawsuit from Modesto City Hall. Proceeds might have paid to upgrade an aging canal and distribution system without raising rates.
Having turned away that potential revenue source, the board turned to volunteers for help. The seven-member panel offers many decades' worth of combined experience in water engineering, business, farming and food packing.
Much of Friday's discussion was technical, including an enlightening overview of the district's reservoir and canal system from committee member Bill Ketscher, a recently retired MID employee.
The committee also ventured into:
A study by the Irrigation Training and Research Center of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, often mentioned as a key document for framing district needs. It cites $115 million worth of improvements that could be done in three phases costing $53 million, $30 million and $32 million.
A draft 2012 Agricultural Water Management Plan reviewed just last week by the MID board. It's required by the state and focuses on efficiency.
Rules and regulations governing how water is distributed.
Mortensen said the latter hasn't been updated since 2000, and the key Cal Poly document dates to 1996.
"It's 16 years old; it's ancient," Ketscher agreed.
They agreed to try digesting reports over the holidays and discussing their observations on the first and third Friday mornings of each month, starting in January. The board expects periodic progress reports and hopes to receive suggestions by the end of May, but already has agreed to fudge, given the enormity of the committee's task.
Political implications of the committee's future product weren't lost on member Paul Van Konynenburg, an agribusinessman, who asked how ratepayers might be approached with proposed fee hikes.
"What benefit does the irrigator receive?" he said. "How do we make the case that they're better off for (paying more)?"
Other committee members are Reid Johnson, Phil Stine, Rich Ulm and Rick Vargas.
Johnson suggested the committee's value might come in evaluating, combining and repackaging myriad improvement ideas that board members balked at previously, usually because of high cost.
"A lot of people looked at a lot of things, and most didn't get across the finish line," Johnson said.
Said Mortensen: "We've got to push some of this stuff across the finish line."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.