MODESTO — A volunteer advisory committee may have found a silver bullet sought by grateful Modesto Irrigation District leaders.
In a progress report Tuesday, committee spokesman Jim Mortensen pitched the idea of a new reservoir in Salida that would build sorely lacking flexibility into the district's water delivery system.
Converting a partly dug stormwater basin owned by Stanislaus County into a holding reservoir would allow the MID to capture water that otherwise would continue to flow down canals into rivers, Mortensen said. The district could conserve 4,700 acre-feet of water a year, he said, that might be sold to generate money to upgrade its aging canal system.
The committee suggested starting environmental studies needed for a larger holding reservoir near Empire that could conserve 7,930 acre-feet per year. By the time construction would start in three or so years, the district would have enough data from the Salida reservoir to know how valuable such flexibility is, Mortensen said.
District leaders in the fall dropped the hotly contested idea of selling 2,240 acre-feet a year to San Francisco, which proposed to pay $700 per acre-foot. The advisory committee was formed in the wake of that controversy and charged with finding ways to pay for canal improvements.
The concept of merging with the Turlock Irrigation District got little mention Tuesday. Board chairman Nick Blom last week said he supports exploring the notion, but it appeared last on the advisory panel's list of potential ideas. Mortensen acknowledged that "it might be an opportune time" to explore consolidation.
"We leave political agendas at the door," Mortensen said of committee members. "We're trying to do the best we can for the district, the whole district, every rate payer water, electricity, it doesn't matter."
He referred to a debate swirling over the decades-old practice of charging power customers more to keep farmers' water rates low. Two board members who irrigate Blom and Larry Byrd on Tuesday said farmers don't get enough credit for providing other value, such as replenishing groundwater, and an MID official said a more detailed review of true service costs is being prepared.
The board unanimously directed interim General Manager Roger Van Hoy to negotiate with county leaders on shared use of the Salida site. The county's plan for a rainwater basin behind a fire station at Toomes and Ciccarelli roads next to an MID canal apparently stalled when home construction tanked in the recession.
The county has processed environmental documents, an often lengthy process, making it possible for the MID to start using a future reservoir as soon as next year, Mortensen said. It could cost $5.4 million.
Studies on Empire
The district will put in motion studies for the Empire reservoir, which could could run $8.9 million, the board agreed Tuesday. It ordered staff to recommend updates on rules that some customers ignore or get around.
The board additionally agreed to resurrect a water committee to vet proposals before they go up for formal votes. Some board members questioned who would serve on the panel; the advisory committee suggested two of the five board members, similar to Modesto City Council committees that review items before full council action.
The advisory committee questions why administrative costs account for 6.5 percent of the MID's electricity operation, but 35 percent of the district's water system. Private industries typically can't support more than 10 percent, Mortensen said.
The advisory committee is expected to produce more recommendations in a final report next month; the volunteer members' schedules make it unlikely they will continue to meet for three hours each week, but more work will remain, Morten-sen said.
Praise for committee
"You folks are to be commended," director Tom Van Groningen told the committee, whose seven members have expertise in engineering, farming and food packing. "You not only met but exceeded my expectations."
"These people have really dedicated themselves to this project," agreed Director Paul Warda. "I really applaud them for it."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.