MODESTO — Farmers should pay 10 percent more for Modesto Irrigation District canal water this year, staff will propose this morning.
The MID board will be asked to schedule an April 9 public hearing that would complete a protest period. A majority protest would kill the rate increase, but even sharp increases typically draw minimal protests.
For years, the district has acknowledged charging electricity customers more than it costs to deliver power and using the excess to keep farmers' rates low. Increases in the transfer could violate a new state law, an MID attorney last year privately advised leaders, who decided not to raise power bills this year.
An increase in irrigation rates theoretically would reduce the subsidy. But any benefit could be erased by an even more dramatic increase in the expected cost to deliver water, a report says.
The result: The average subsidy covered by the MID's 113,000 electricity customers would rise on paper from $95 last year to more than $116 this year, according to calculations based on a recent report.
Also this morning, the board will hear its first update from an advisory committee exploring how to improve the district's canal system, and how to pay for it. Ideas include stiffening penalties for violating irrigation rules, a paper says.
The committee, composed of volunteers with engineering, farming and business expertise, was formed after the board in the fall dropped the hotly contested idea of selling water to San Francisco and using proceeds for improvements.
San Francisco, able to spread charges among 2.6 million customers, had offered to pay $700 an acre-foot for an initial small amount, compared with $29.50 charged to MID farmers last year. The rate would rise to $32.50 under the staff proposal.
An acre-foot covers an acre of land, or about a football field, in 12 inches of water.
Last year, the $29.50 charge applied to 42 inches. This year's base allotment is expected to be 36 inches, the report says, subject to changes in Sierra Nevada snowpack that will melt and drain into reservoirs.
The base allotment was 36 inches in 2008 and 2009, but 42 inches all other years since 2000.
The minimum charge is the equivalent of five acre-feet, or $162.50 under the proposal up from $147.50 last year.
People reserving a future right to water without taking any, called stand-by accounts, pay half.
After the first 36 inches, farmers could pay $16.25 per acre-foot for an additional six inches, and $30 per acre-foot for more if it's available.
Raising rates would "send a message to the community and operators" encouraging conservation, a report says.
By comparison, a new Turlock Irrigation District rate structure is expected to boost fees paid by its farmers an average of 14 percent.
The 10 percent MID increase would be consistent with annual goals set about 20 years ago by leaders wanting eventually to erase rate inequities. A Bee review in November of historic increases suggested sporadic commitment to that goal, with an annual average jump of 6.9 percent.
Sporadic increases for farmers
Leaders have blamed lapses on sympathy during hard times, resulting in no rate hikes in 2002 and 2011 and less than 10 percent in other years.
Others say farmers should get credit for replenishing groundwater needed for wells. Also, Modesto City Hall pays nothing when its storm water drains into the MID's canals.
If the April increase is approved, farmers' rates will have more than doubled in 10 years; they paid $15.30 per acre-foot in 2003.
MID leaders last year pledged to make a public presentation in January on the inequity between power and water charges, but recently postponed it until seeing what the advisory committee comes up with.
The committee could take until late May, or longer, to formulate recommendations. Today's progress report includes an initial suggestion that the district update water distribution rules adopted 13 years ago.
Committee members believe penalties for violating irrigation rules "are not enough to change behavior," the report says. It encourages "more specificity and less latitude for irrigators."
The committee also found that small parcels consume too much of the staff's time for the amount of revenue they bring, "creating significant system inefficiencies for the district."
The board assumed that the committee would find helpful a previous study by the Irrigation Training and Research Center of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. That document cited $115 million in needed canal and system upgrades.
But the committee has yet to see data justifying that amount, according to the progress report.
The Modesto Irrigation District Board meets at 9 a.m. today in the office chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto.
On the Net: www.mid.org/about/board/agenda/default.html.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.