Future of MID farm water transfers is uncertain

gstapley@modbee.comApril 22, 2014 

Plans to combat drought by allowing water transfers among farmers could be in jeopardy, growers and Modesto Irrigation District leaders learned Tuesday at a meeting tinged with uncertainty and accusations of unfairness.

The Lyons family and its Mapes Ranch could cancel their transfers if the MID doesn’t remove last-minute requirements slapped on participating farmers, Bill Lyons said. His operations, he said, account for most of the water involved in one of two programs created by the MID to address the drought.

Several other growers and their attorneys also protested recently drafted participation rules, calling them punitive to those who choose to help the district, other farmers and themselves.

Some MID board members were openly sympathetic and wanted to change offending requirements on the spot. But only three of the board’s five members attended Tuesday’s meeting. Such changes require three votes, and one member – Larry Byrd – objects to water transfers, saying they could enrich some sellers.

The indecision is likely to continue until May 13, the board’s next scheduled meeting. The district initially told growers to submit transfer applications by May 1, including the debated information, but the board on Tuesday agreed to postpone the deadline until May 15.

Modesto attorney Armando Flores said the fact that attorneys showed up to protect clients’ interests suggests that the proposed transfer rules are way too complicated. Byrd noted at least five lawyers in the room.

Most said it’s not reasonable to demand that growers hoping to buy or sell water run down and submit assessor parcel numbers, enroll in the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, provide extensive information on private well pumps that could be shared with others, be responsible for permits that probably don’t exist and submit notarized land deeds.

Lyons listed several prior meetings where the concept of transfers was discussed and cited a March letter sent to landowners alerting them that the transfers were coming.

“At every one of those, none of the issues you’ve heard about today was ever discussed,” he said. “Through the whole public process it was stressed that the applications would be easy, with less paperwork, and they would expedite the process. That hasn’t occurred.”

Ripon attorney Stacy Henderson noted that some growers applying to drill wells have been sued by environmental advocates worried that a surge of pumping could deplete groundwater supplies. Requiring water customers to provide well data – depth, horsepower, casing size and gallons-per-minute capacity – and broadcasting that the information would be released to others should not be a condition for participation, she said.

“You are exposing these people to litigation,” Henderson said. “It’s completely unfair and unreasonable.”

Hoping to stretch this year’s limited supply of mountain snowmelt, the board in February concocted both voluntary transfer programs. One has farmers forgo their water shares for a fixed $400 per-acre payment, allowing 58 growers who signed up to buy that water at the same price. Using numbers reported by The Modesto Bee, Lyons figured that his operations represent 54 percent of the water in that program.

The second and far more controversial idea would allow farmers to buy and sell their shares of MID water on the open market, at any price negotiated. The district is not sure how many growers want in on such farmer-to-farmer sales, but Roger VanHoy, the district’s general manager, said Tuesday that there could be “hundreds of pairs” of contracts.

“Why are we picking on a hundred when there are 3,000 (farmers) in the district? To me, it’s just not fair,” said Nick Blom, board chairman.

Board member John Mensinger said, “We should go out to all farmers and ask them to volunteer the info. We shouldn’t bully a few just because they want to participate in these programs during the drought.”

He wanted to remove the requirement for well data, but that would require agreement from all three board members present and Byrd voted “no,” so the motion died.

“I would have thought that everyone would be happy with this water transfer, but apparently it’s not good enough,” Byrd said. “Now they want to write the rules too.”

The board’s attorney, Joy Warren, said farmers can simply certify that they’re complying with state water discharge requirements rather than proving they belong to the water quality coalition, and said people must submit deed information before their first transfer as opposed to the new application deadline. Also, VanHoy said he’s not aware of any permits that might be needed, but his staff inserted that language just to be safe.

All of the proposed rules, however, could be subject to change May 13, when board members Paul Campbell and Jake Wenger are expected to attend. Both have supported transfers in previous votes, though Wenger has argued against open-market sales.

VanHoy’s staff wants to gather well data to inform the district’s groundwater management plan and to share with a Stanislaus County water committee charged with recommending groundwater regulations. Byrd, a member of that committee, predicted it won’t meet that goal within 100 days, with half left, partly because of difficulty obtaining data from thousands of private wells.

“It’s the dog chasing its tail because no one is cooperating in terms of pump info,” Byrd said.

The board’s May 13 meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in the board chamber, 1231 11th St., Modesto.

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

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