MODESTO — The idea of shopping Valley water to the highest bidder dominated Thursdays debate for Modesto Irrigation District seats, although candidates also found time to sound off on groundwater, electricity rates and renewable energy.
None of the seven men at the Stanislaus League of Women Voters lively forum said they favor selling the MIDs water birthright, tantamount to political suicide in the current climate.
An eighth candidate, Ted Donham, on Wednesday told The Bee that he had been asked to withdraw and he declined, but he was absent from Thursdays debate. A ninth, Matt Innes, backed out of his race a few weeks ago, although his name will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Carmen Sabatino continued accusing three candidates of wanting to sell water elsewhere, which all of them denied.
Jake Wenger said MID should sell water in wet years not to San Francisco but to growers of millions of new almond trees on the east side of Stanislaus County, whose well pumping threatens to deplete underground aquifers.
Its not clear we have any extra to sell, John Mensinger said.
Jim Mortensen said it would take three winters of excessive snow and rain to overcome the two dry ones that have hurt farmers.
Les Johnson said the situation is worth watching, and Paul Campbell said he wants to find solutions through teamwork.
Brad Johnson said the topic is just a talking point that distracts from more important issues, such as the districts crushing debt.
Most of the candidates said MID should build new reservoirs to increase efficient delivery of irrigation, and most said they dont think its a good idea to increase so-called garden head rates by 540 percent.
This years races are commanding unprecedented attention because of increasing controversy over perceived board dysfunction, and the expectation for top-level change. None of the three open races features an incumbent, meaning the five-member board will have a new majority after Nov. 5.
Quotable comments from Thursdays forum, by race:
Division 2, Central Modesto
Mensinger: Its awful to pay more than is needed, but its worse to have blackouts. We need reliable power and water.
Sabatino: The MID is $1.2billion in debt. The reason rates are so high is because the MID has been mismanaged. And they have another $450million debt in unfunded pension liability.
Division 3, Northeast Modesto and part of Riverbank
Campbell: You dont want to hurt customers, but you do have to recover your costs, otherwise you go out of business.
Les Johnson, on garden head increases: They cant afford it. A lot grow little crops for themselves.
Division 4, Northwest Modesto and Salida
Brad Johnson: County supervisors must pass a policy on (well pumps) and they must do it soon. Im afraid they wont because most are involved in the (farming) industry.
Mortensen: It wont hurt anybody to put a moratorium on new east side pumps until a federal groundwater survey comes out in a few months.
Wenger: We need strategic partners. If we can sell water to people on the east side and give them an alternative source, they dont have to turn their pumps on, and the solution benefits everyone involved.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.