Our View: New Modesto Irrigation District board should shape policy

July 22, 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

The Modesto Irrigation District board will look different after the Nov. 5 election.

Longtime directors Tom Van Groningen and Paul Warda and one-term director Glen Wild are not seeking re-election, meaning there will be three new faces — enough to constitute a majority — on the five-member board.

Because of that pending turnover, we think it's wise that the present board not rush into considering some of the long-term policy changes recommended by its Water Advisory Committee.

For this morning's meeting, staff has recommended a timetable for the committee's recommendations to be studied and then decisions to be made. We think it is, for the most part, a solid plan.

The newly elected board members will take their seats after the election results are certified, making it late November or early December. They will have to get up to speed on the complexities of the MID. Nonetheless, the new board should be the ones involved in the biggest decisions. We see them as:

• Establishing a policy for the sale — aka transfer — of water to other districts or customers. The policy needs to include several elements: What the money raised from the sale of water will be used for; what types of contracts — short-term, long-term or occasional — the district wants to enter into, and whether the district can or should give preference to certain categories of water buyers.

This water sale policy should include the discussion of whether the district, during the next wet year, will provide water to outside customers to replenish the groundwater supply. Director Larry Byrd has been pushing for an augmentation for east side growers because of concerns that they are pumping so much groundwater that the underground supply is being depleted. We appreciate his concern, but see this as part of the bigger picture. The MID should have a policy before it seems to be picking favorites.

• A long-term plan for raising rates for irrigation water, to bring them closer to covering the actual costs of providing the water. The MID board received few protests when it considered a 10 percent rate increase for the current year, but then they backed off. That was short-sighted. It is useful to irrigators and the district when there is a long-term rate plan in place.

The rates discussion should include whether to substantially increase the amount charged so-called gardenhead customers, those with small parcels who the advisory committee suggested should see huge rate increases.

• A clear breakdown of what it costs to deliver water to the 3,600 farmers who rely on it and to the MID's biggest customer, the city of Modesto, for its domestic water supply.

This review is important because the electrical customers are subsidizing the water operations to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Put bluntly: Power customers pay more because irrigators pay too little.

The Water Advisory Committee applied some arbitrary numbers to its spreadsheet, calculating that electrical customers inside and outside the city benefited from the city's use of MID canals for storm water runoff to the tune of at least $2.3 million a year. Also, it suggested that electricity customers benefited from the fact that farmers still using flood irrigation helped to recharge the groundwater supply, to the tune of about $600,000 a year.

The MID has to be on solid ground in its cost-of-service numbers or else it will be subject to a lawsuit from electrical customers. The specter of such a lawsuit was raised last year by the MID's general counsel at the time.

Today's meeting will not include monumental decisions, but rather laying out the plan for the number of significant decisions to be made. Some, such as updating rules and regulations, should be finished by the current board. The MID should proceed with building a regulating reservoir that will reduce the amount of water that simply spills into the river. That is a smart conservation step.

But the big policy decisions, with far-reaching and long-lasting implications, should be delayed until after the fall election, when a new board is in place.

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

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