Farm leaders concerned about proposed water sales to San Francisco by the Modesto Irrigation District offered Tuesday to discuss raising their own rates.
The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau said it would like to examine the canal system upgrades that the San Francisco income would pay for and see whether at least some of the work might be covered by farmers.
"We would like to see alternative proposals at the same time, not just look at one proposal," Farm Bureau President Ron Peterson told the MID board.
District officials said they are open to the idea, but for now, the much-debated San Francisco option is still on the table. The board tentatively set a June 26 vote on the contract for the first sale.
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That draft is being revised to address concerns that the deal would leave the MID and the city of Modesto short of water in dry years. The new version could be released for public review this week, MID officials said.
The first sale of the Tuolumne River water would be for up to 2,240 acre-feet a year, which is 1.6 percent of the district's annual deliveries to farmers and the treatment plant serving Modesto-area residents.
An additional 25,000 acre-feet could be sold in the future — water freed up by construction of small reservoirs to catch spills at the ends of canals.
San Francisco would pay $700 per acre-foot to start in the first sale, about 70 times what farmers pay this year. The income from this and future sales could pay for an estimated $115 million in system upgrades.
District officials have said farm water rates would have to rise by as much as $65 per acre-foot to cover the same costs.
Peterson said a review of the planned upgrades could result in cost savings. The projects include the small reservoirs, improvements to automated controls and replacement of the flume that carries the MID's main canal over Dry Creek east of Empire.
The city of Modesto pays the same rate as farmers for raw water for the treatment plant. It is a small part of the city's total cost of delivering the water to homes and businesses, but a major rate increase could have an impact.
Modesto attorney Armando Flores said residential and small-business customers should be included in the discussion of how to pay for the MID upgrades.
MID board President Tom Van Groningen said the district explored the San Francisco sales as just one option for paying for the work. He added that the district has been "sensitive to ratepayer increases."
The MID has some of the lowest irrigation rates in the state, even with increases of about 10 percent annually in most recent years.
The board has been trying to close the gap between income and operating costs. The difference is made up by the MID's electricity income, about $27 per year for the average customer.
Board member Glen Wild said he is "absolutely adamant" that power customers should not subsidize irrigators.
The board heard nearly two hours of comment on the water sale Tuesday, most of it in opposition. Critics said the sale contract as first proposed gave San Francisco too much say when it comes to dry years and other details.
"This contract is not only taking water," Reid Johnson of Modesto said. "Worse than that, it's taking control."
Some critics worry that the sale could give regulators the impression that the MID has water that can be released down the Tuolumne for fish.
"To suggest that we have extra water — I don't know — it's just a bad idea," farmer Don Calkins said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.