MODESTO -- When the Modesto Irrigation District was considering selling water to San Francisco last year, a number of farmers who opposed the sale acknowledged that they needed to pay more for water. Now we'll get the chance to see if they are really willing to do that.
The MID board has started the multistep process to raise the price of water by 10 percent for the coming season. If more than half of the water customers object, the rate increase will be halted.
We hope the farmers will stand by their word and recognize that they're getting bargain prices for water and continue to have a more reliable supply than many of their counterparts elsewhere in California.
Even with a 10 percent rate increase, MID irrigators will be paying far less than many. The rate presented as $32.50 for a base allocation of 36 inches translates to a price of $10.83 per acre foot. (An acre measures just more than 43,500 square feet; an acre-foot of water is 325,851 gallons.)
The customers that will be paying more include not just farmers but also the city of Modesto, which buys water at wholesale rates for treatment and then distribution to households and businesses. (City water customers won't feel this rate increase directly because the cost of buying the Tuolumne River water is only a small part of the total cost of providing water for urban use.)
Tuesday's meeting included some healthy discussion about whether the MID should be raising water rates even more, to where water customers are coming closer to paying the actual cost of delivering the water.
Though the five directors voted unanimously to put the 10 percent rate increase and the base allotment of 36 inches up for a vote of water users, there's clearly some disagreement among them about how much rates should go up. That's predictable and appropriate, and we fully expect this conversation will be long and at times contentious. It's not a black-and-white issue, and there are many factors to be considered.
Director Glen Wild asked whether the board should be considering a much higher rate increase, to bring the water rates more in line with the cost of operating and maintaining the canals and other features of the delivery system.
There's no doubt that the electric customers are subsidizing the water users and have been doing so for years. That was evident in the basic math provided by MID staff Tuesday. The revenue for 2013 water sales is expected to total just less than $4.2 million. The expenses directly associated with delivering that water total about $11.4 million. The difference is paid by the power users, many of whom are the same customers.
Director Larry Byrd seemed reluctant to impose any rate increase on farmers, saying he wanted to wait for recommendations from the appointed Water Advisory Committee.
In the end, the board which has had a lot of split votes in recent years compromised with the staff's recommendation, a proposed 10 percent rate increase for water for 2013. We think it was the right call although we think water rates will need to rise substantially more, not just to pay for ongoing operational expenses but also to finance improvements to the water system.
Meanwhile, it was a positive sign to see the board start to discuss this important issue of the power subsidy.
And there are positive signs that the advisory committee will come back with some good suggestions. The committee's recommendations are expected by the end of May, although that's an ambitious timeline and if it takes a little longer, that's OK as well.
For now, we urge MID irrigators to accept the 10 percent rate increase and recognize the good deal they are still getting.