OUR VIEW: MID committee doing excellent job

April 25, 2013 

TLB MID 3

TRACY BARBUTES / tbarbutes@modbee.com The Modesto Irrigation District offices in downtown Modesto, Calif., on October 10, 2011.

TRACY BARBUTES — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

It appears that the Water Advisory Committee of the Modesto Irrigation District is able to do something that its elected board of directors has not been — carry on objective discussions and reach some reasonable conclusions about what should be done to improve the irrigation system that is the lifeblood of our local ag industry.

Tuesday, the MID board adopted several committee recommendations that could finally set the district on the right path toward upgrading the water distribution system. The board vote was unanimous, as were directors' compliments for the committee's progress report.

We applaud the seven committee members and especially Chairman Jim Mortensen for being pragmatic rather than political. It was very believable when Mortensen told the board that the committee wants to do the best for all MID customers, water and electrical.

A few observations about the advisory committee's work so far:

• The recommendation to convert an incomplete county storm drain basin to a regulating reservoir is attractive because it will be relatively inexpensive — the environmental studies are done — and because it will allow the MID to experiment with this kind of reservoir as a way to conserve water that otherwise might just go down the canals and into the San Joaquin River. The experience with that first reservoir, near Salida, will influence how and where the district puts other small storage facilities.

• The committee appropriately urged the interim general manager to get going on some other basics, such as updating the rules and regulations regarding irrigation water, beginning the environmental review for construction of other reservoirs and conducting a board workshop that outlines the upgrades made during the last 24 months.

• Another no-brainer: That the board reinstitute a Water Committee consisting of two board members. Although two is less than a quorum, we would add that its meetings should be posted and open to the public. The challenge right now is that there is such a high level of mistrust and discord among the five directors that they might not be able to agree on who should serve on a water committee or trust its recommendations.

• Finally, the advisory committee suggested, as others have before, that there might be savings if the MID merged with the Turlock Irrigation District. That idea has splash, but would take years to accomplish — even if both sides agreed — and the MID has far more pressing concerns, such as $11 million-plus in improvements to assure that the Dry Creek flume doesn't fail.

It is hard to imagine that the advisory committee will be able to finish all its work by the informal deadline of May 31. In some respects, as Mortensen said, the committee tackled the easy aspects first — what needs to be done. The greater challenge: how to pay for it.

The committee has on its agenda for discussion some of the hot- button possibilities that the elected directors have feuded over and, most recently, ducked. These include rates paid by irrigators and "monetizing" conserved water. Translated: selling water.

What also has surfaced as a contentious issue is the extent to which electrical customers are subsidizing farmers because water rates have been kept so low that they don't even cover annual operating costs of the water side. Director Glen Wild explained his thoughts about this subsidy in an op-ed that appeared in last Sunday's Bee.

Director Larry Byrd countered Tuesday with the suggestion that irrigators are paying more than their fair share considering, for instance, that the city gets free use of MID canals for stormwater runoff. "The reality is that maybe the water side is not in the hole. We're in the black," Byrd said.

Interim general manager Roger Van Hoy said the staff is putting together a matrix to assess benefits and costs. That's a good thing, although inevitably it will contain some highly subjective assessments. While the staff is preparing such a matrix, we also think it would be useful to have a concise history of financing for MID water and power facilities. For example: Who paid to build the Don Pedro powerhouse?

Armed with objective data about cost benefits and tradeoffs — and following the fine example set by the Water Advisory Committee — we hope the elected directors can get back to their job, making sure the MID provides affordable water and power to residents and farmers today and in the future.

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