Modesto Irrigation District committee's water ideas create uproar

gstapley@modbee.comJune 22, 2013 

JH MID

JOHN HOLLAND/jholland@modbee.com The nearly century-old flume over Dry Creek at Albers Road is among the parts of the Modesto Irrigation District system that could be upgraded with money from a proposed water sale to San Francisco. A break in the flume, a bridge-like structure made of concrete, would cut off most of the MID service area.

JOHN HOLLAND — Modesto Bee

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

— Mary Chaney paid about $10 a year to flood-water her one-third acre back yard, near an irrigation valve, when she moved to an older section of Salida 36 years ago.

With periodic increases, the annual bill now comes to $165. If Modesto Irrigation District leaders agree with recommendations of an advisory committee, 750 customers with so-called garden head accounts could see charges jump 544 percent, to $950.

"This is ridiculous," said Chaney, 61. "Most of the people who use this are low income and disabled and could never afford to pay."

The proposal is among several bold ideas suggested by a group of seven volunteers charged with studying the MID's aging water delivery system and pitching upgrades, as well as how to pay for them.

The nearly impossible mission took six months. Hard-working committee members produced wide-ranging lists of innovative ideas, tables and charts including a measurable plan for putting the utility's chronically underfinanced water operations into the black for the first time in many decades.

The aggressive 10-year plan shows the water system turning a profit in seven years.

"I thought it was outstanding," said board member Paul Warda.

Board member Tom Van Groningen said, "I was frankly impressed."

However, the lofty goal would require many mind-bending changes. Some, such as jacking up garden head fees, are sure to run into stiff resistance.

Balancing the books according to the committee's proposal also would require:

• Saving water in new holding reservoirs, instead of letting it drain into the river

• Selling the extra at substantial profit

Some of the balancing act further requires historic justification in how the district reckons the value of its canal system. A sea change in that accounting would require:

• Getting on-paper credits from Modesto for letting the city drain storm water in canals, which saves City Hall from building an expensive pipe system costing at least $2.3 million a year in loan payments

• Giving farmers credit for replenishing groundwater as irrigation seeps through the soil. The committee figured that's worth $600,000 a year.

• Continuing to charge electricity customers several millions of dollars a year on the theory that everyone benefits from irrigation dams that produce power

Board members say they're grateful for the committee's dedication and vision but acknowledge that such changes can't be made overnight. They intend to start marching down the list item by item, perhaps taking months.

"All in all, I think they did a great job," said board Chairman Nick Blom. "This is not just a nice report to shelve."

The committee also suggested raising other water rates roughly 20 percent next year.

Many unhappy at proposal

An invitation on The Bee's Facebook page sparked lively dialogue on the idea of raising rates on garden head accounts, homeowners who are permitted to flood property of less than 5 acres for pennies on the dollar.

Decades ago, the district did its part encouraging World War II victory gardens to ease pressure on the local food supply and boost morale through self-sustainment. Users still receive water every couple of weeks in warmer months. But the 750 urban connections are expensive to maintain.

In its presentation, the advisory committee noted that MID ditch tenders spend a third of their time on garden heads even though those accounts generate just $100,000, less than 5 percent of all water revenue.

With "what's fair is fair" reasoning, the committee divided the $2.2 million the district spends on ditch tenders each year into thirds. Further dividing the part allocated to garden heads by the 750 customers suggests that each should pay $950 a year, a more than sixfold increase from the minimum $147.50 charge.

"That STINKS!!" wrote Facebook reader Susan Marci. "ppl cant afford the rates NOW!!"

Colin A. Sparkman, whose 9-acre parcel would be exempt from a garden head increase, wrote, "You liberal democrats are going to take the most prime agricultural land in the world and water tax it into a wasteland."

In an email, retired MID water operations manager Lee DeLano said, "A special charge to the small user while the remainder of the irrigators continue to be subsidized? How outlandish!"

MID farmers pay $9.85 per acre-foot of water, the district spends $71 to deliver it and power customers subsidize the difference. A proposal to raise water rates 10 percent failed in April, with some board members favoring a much steeper increase and others preferring none.

"We should take the word 'water' out of the arch now," posted Abraham Sosa, referring to the "Water Wealth Contentment Health" slogan on the Modesto arch on I Street.

Two-tier system suggested

Others can't imagine why homes with water meters should pay much more than those lucky enough to be near the MID's irrigation network.

"I'm on a meter, six houses away they are not," wrote Peggy Phelps. "They flood water front and back yards. I have to sprinkler."

Mark Smith said, "I doubt this would raise any money, as I assume these people would be smart enough to change their method of irrigation if the prices were to go up that much."

Advisory committee members saw that coming and suggested that the MID board think about adopting a two-tier system, perhaps charging urban homeowners, who have access to city water, a different price than rural ranchettes.

Board member Larry Byrd said, "I would think that for a lot of these elderly people who grow food in their back yard, that may be a pretty stiff price to adapt to. We'll have to look at it strongly."

The city also should pay $56,500 more per year for tap water delivered from the district's water treatment plant, the advisory committee said, figuring that each water customer would pay 7 cents more per month.

The MID board meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the district office, 1231 11th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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