FARM BEAT: MID keeps it all in the family with water sale to TID

jholland@modbee.comJune 14, 2013 

TB MID canal

Modesto Irrigation District Lateral 4 flows west in this view from Carpenter Road on Tuesday, April 8, 2008. Ted Benson/The Modesto Bee

TED BENSON — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
    Recent stories written by John

If your sister asks for water, how do you say no?

That helps explain why the Modesto Irrigation District board agreed Tuesday to sell water to the neighboring Turlock Irrigation District to help it through the dry 2013.

An MID official referred to the TID as a "sister agency" in recommending that the sale go through. Other supporters noted how the two have cooperated for more than a century in managing the Tuolumne River for water and hydropower.

The feelings were not so fond for San Francisco when it sought to buy water from the MID last year, despite the fact that it, too, has a system on the Tuolumne and cooperates with the two districts on river management.

To critics of that sale, San Francisco was no sister. More like an obnoxious cousin.

I spent many hours listening to critics complain that selling water to San Francisco could mean shortages in dry years for Modesto-area farmers and domestic users.

They said the first small sale would turn into many bigger transactions and the big, bad city would find a way to keep the water flowing after the contracts ended.

San Francisco officials did not come to Modesto to join in the fray, but they said several times via The Bee that there was enough water for all.

They also said they offered $700 per acre-foot in the first sale — about 70 times what MID farmers pay — because this is especially precious water. It would have been diverted at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, just inside Yosemite National Park, where wilderness protections prevent many of the impurities that downslope water agencies face. That means less treatment cost.

The San Francisco people told me all this by phone, by email and, on one sunny morning, during a tour of Hetch Hetchy. We motorboated across the water and walked down into the dam — an adventure that ranks high in my reporting career.

Those long hours in the MID boardroom were rewarding in a different way. The debate over the San Francisco proposal — as raucous as it sometimes got — did prompt people to think about the value of water.

We have fairly strong river rights, secured soon after the MID and its sister were born a few months apart in 1887. We can get through most droughts with modest adjustments — such as the TID sale, which is just 4 percent of the MID's average use each year.

Farmers have it worse in parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley, where federal deliveries are down to 20 percent of the contracted volume this year because of drought and delta fish protections.

And in places without irrigation, if it doesn't rain, you don't farm. That happened across much of the Great Plains and Midwest last year. It happens more often for farmers in more drought- prone parts of the world.

Our area has crime and unemployment and other ills, but when it comes to water, we are doing fairly well. Enough to help out when sis calls.

Have an idea for the Farm Beat? Contact John Holland at or (209) 578-2385.

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