The Modesto Irrigation District won't vote next week on the controversial San Francisco water sale proposal.
Instead, MID leaders will continue private negotiations with Modesto city officials to try to resolve deep concerns about the proposed deal.
City officials — and others — have objected to the wording of the draft sales contract because it would give San Francisco priority access to MID water during drought years.
MID General Manager Allen Short announced Friday afternoon that Tuesday's scheduled vote on the sale would be postponed. "We've had productive discussions with city of Modesto officials on the issue of the 2,240 acre-foot water transfer (to San Francisco). However, the city has not had the opportunity to review these discussions internally; therefore, MID believes that the water transfer should not be acted on until a later date," Short said.
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MID's five-man board of directors may not schedule a public discussion or vote on the contentious issue until August or September.
Private talks between city and water district officials could begin next week. George Petrulakis, a Modesto attorney working for MID, said he will determine Monday when representatives from the two Modesto public agencies can meet.
Petrulakis said MID and the city should be able to work out their differences over water rights and figure out "how to maximize the benefits to the community."
Discussing water rights behind closed doors is inappropriate, insisted John Duarte, a prominent grower and businessman who is among those leading opposition to the San Francisco water sale.
"Without agriculture at the table, it's totally unacceptable," he warned. Duarte said he fears city leaders will negotiate a side deal with MID "and leave ag out in the cold."
MID has been providing irrigation water to agriculture for nearly a century. Last year, it sold 138,636 acre-feet of water to Modesto area farmers.
In 1995, MID began selling drinking water to Modesto, including 27,485 acre-feet last year. Modesto's water treatment plant is being expanded to let the city eventually double how much water it gets from MID.
San Francisco also wants some of MID's water — 2,240 acre-feet per year — and is willing to pay big bucks for it.
"Ag knows that Modesto's urban users need that water," Duarte said. "But we do not have any extra water to transfer out of the area."
Duarte said the agricultural community was deeply involved in the negotiations that gave Modesto city users rights to MID water, so it is wrong for the city and MID to leave ag out of talks to modify their agreement.
When asked Friday whether agriculture should be part of negotiations with the city and MID, Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said, "No, thanks."
"This is a contract between the city of Modesto and the MID," said Marsh, explaining how the two agencies need to resolve differences in how they interpret their contract's water guarantees.
Marsh said he has drafted a proposal to resolve those issues in a way that would let the San Francisco water sale go through.
The mayor declined a request to make his proposal public, but he said it "fully guarantees" that agriculture's water supply would not be affected by water sales to San Francisco.
Tom Van Groningen, president of the MID board, said it's appropriate to delay voting on the water sale long enough to work out a mutually agreeable understanding with Modesto officials.
"Our relationship with the city of Modesto is important to us," Van Groningen said. He said they still have plenty of time to decide on the San Francisco deal. "It's not a crisis situation by any stretch of the imagination."
San Francisco is OK with the delay. "We respect and appreciate MID's continued engagement with their many stakeholders on the contract," said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. "We remain committed to developing a mutually beneficial agreement that allows the Bay Area to meet long-term water supply needs and allows for MID to raise revenue to better serve their customers."
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.
Debate rages over how much water MID will have or need in the future.
But statistics make two things clear: Less land is irrigated every year and farmers aren't using as much water as they once did.