Advice to the Modesto Irrigation District board

OUR VIEW

June 21, 2013 

The most significant recommendations from the Modesto Irrigation District's Water Advisory Committee are not the proposed 20 percent increase in water charges for next year or the flat fee per irrigator to cover the basic costs.

The most worthwhile advice from the seven-member advisory committee is for the MID's five elected directors — who have been in a state of dysfunction for much of the last 18 months — is to have some thoughtful deliberations about policies:

• Perhaps most critical: To develop a policy on to whom the district would sell water, under what circumstances and for how long. Does the MID want to give preferential treatment to some buyers, such as nearby users of groundwater, whose wells likely are affecting groundwater users within the MID?

As the committee noted, the board has reacted to prospective purchasers rather than having a non-emotional conversation about philosophy. The result: Prospective buyers have been treated very differently. Some were rebuffed by staff, without reaching the point of a public board discussion. San Francisco's interest in a 2,500 acre-foot purchase and the possibility of a much larger and long-term transfer ultimately was rejected after a knock-down, drag-out fight that has permanently tainted directors' ability to work together.

The fact that San Francisco is a partner with the MID in building Don Pedro was mostly ignored in that debate. Rather, sale opponents saw this as a case of those big-city types wanting "our water." But then this past week, the board unanimously approved selling up to 7,000 acre- feet of water this year, a very dry year, to another Don Pedro partner, the Turlock Irrigation District. It was inconsistent.

During the public discussions, many citizens wanted any excess water to go only to other farmers, never to cities. But the MID has a fiduciary responsibility to sell water for the highest and best use and to the highest bidder.

The advisory committee was right on with this point: Set a thoughtful policy and follow it.

• The committee also says that the water customers of the MID — farmers, ranchette owners and the city of Modesto — need to pay more toward the actual cost of delivering water, reducing the millions in red ink in the operations and maintenance of the water side. Even after receiving very few protests this year, the MID board let die a staff proposal to raise rates by up to 10 percent. That was foolish. The board needs to set in place a series of water rate increases that bring its water prices in line with most other districts and paying more toward actual costs.

• The MID needs to reduce spills out of the canals into the river at the end of the system. The amounts are higher in wet years, of course, but spills occur every year, according the committee's report, based on staff information. At times during the contentious San Francisco water sale debate, Director Larry Byrd argued that no water was being spilled, and therefore no water was available to sell.

The advisory committee supported a previous staff proposal to build small regulating reservoirs that could hold the extra water until it was needed by downstream irrigators. The saved water also could be sold, providing money to maintain and improve the irrigation system.

While the committee acknowledged that irrigators need to pay more, its recommendations would continue to result in major subsidies of the water operations by electrical customers, just under different labels. For instance, it suggests that the water side should be credited, to the tune of $600,000 a year, for the benefit of groundwater charge that results from flood irrigation. No doubt there are benefits from this form of recharge — and the drawback of contamination — but the benefit doesn't go only to power customers. It goes to all water users, which includes farmers with wells.

The committee also recommended that a credit of $2.3 million annually — and increasing — be given to the water operation because the city of Modesto uses MID canals to release stormwater. Again, no doubt the city benefits from this use of the canals, but this credit could be challenged legally by power customers who don't live in the city and therefore don't benefit from this stormwater drainage.

The advisory committee provided a 10-year plan, leaving to the board major decisions on the most expensive projects, such as replacing the Dry Creek flume. And it didn't try to deal with unknowns, such as what demands will be placed on the MID by the state Water Resources Control Board or by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when it relicenses Don Pedro power houses.

Bottom line: The use of an advisory committee provided the board with a respite from its months of feuding, and the committee has offered some useful directions about the policy decisions that can only be made by the elected directors.

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