A proposal to raise farmers' water bills by 10 percent failed Tuesday at the hands of a sharply divided Modesto Irrigation District board.
Farmers will continue to pay current rates, but could face an even steeper increase in coming months if enough board members agree.
The issue pits interests of farmers against those of electricity customers who for years have paid extra to keep irrigation rates artificially low. Board member Larry Byrd, a rancher, despises the polarizing argument and questions the rationale used to calculate the perceived subsidy.
An MID-hired attorney last year advised the board privately that aspects of the subsidy could be illegal.
Board members Tom Van Groningen and Glen Wild, who represent urban districts, fear the inequity will continue forever unless leaders take bold action to approve irrigation increases of more than 10 percent. They favor restarting a 45-day protest process with a more ambitious rate hike.
In the middle is Paul Warda, who made a motion Tuesday morning to approve the 10 percent increase; it died for lack of a second.
"OK, it goes down in a blaze of glory, I guess," board chairman Nick Blom said when the issue abruptly died. He didn't take sides at the meeting; afterward, Blom said he favors a 10 percent bump but had to abide by rules preventing the chairman from seconding a motion.
Whether another rate increase is imminent, and at what level, is unknown, but provisions of state law suggest another try would be at least a couple of months away.
The failed proposal would have raised irrigation rates to $10.83 per acre-foot, or $32.50 for 36 inches of water on each acre — about what's needed to sustain nut trees common to this area. The base allotment was 42 inches in 11 of the past 13 years.
Electricity rates won't change this year, the board has said.
General Manager Roger Van Hoy and assistant Walter Ward described the 10 percent proposal as "safe," meaning not enough to anger a majority of farmers while moving toward reducing the subsidy. However, Ward agreed with Wild that farmers never truly would cover the district's costs of delivering water with yearly bumps of only 10 percent.
Modesto pays the same rate as farmers for Tuolumne River water that is treated and sold to the city's water customers.
Revenue from the city and farmers is about $2.5 million, and other charges bring all water-related income to $4.2 million. But MID spends about $16.7 million to deliver the water, and the district's 113,000 electricity customers make up the difference.
"It's like pitting the farmer against the city. That's not a good relationship to have," Byrd said. He wants clarification that could accompany recommendations by a volunteer committee charged with suggesting canal system improvements and how to pay for them; a progress report is expected April 23.
Farming advocates contend that they are given no credit for replenishing groundwater, an incredibly valuable resource, when water applied to crops seeps down. Also, the district doesn't charge Modesto for using MID canals to carry away storm water.
After the meeting, Wild said the rate increase process should resume after the committee reports its findings. Van Groningen said he always has supported steeper increases to make things more fair for power customers.
Proposing an increase larger than 10 percent is likely to draw more spirited protests from farmers, Van Hoy warned.
Lawsuits in at least two other California cities could clarify whether such subsidies are illegal. If so, Wild said, larger increases now could reduce the shock of suddenly charging farmers many times more than they're used to paying.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.