Veterinarian Robert Santos was leading Turlock Irrigation District incumbent Michael V. Crowell in unofficial election returns late Tuesday.
With about 90 percent of Stanislaus County's 388 precincts reporting, Santos had received 1,255 votes, or 58.2 percent, to Crowell's 891 votes, or 41.3 percent, in the District 4 contest.
Crowell, who has represented District 4 for the past 16 years, gave a blunt assessment of his chances when he spoke with The Bee after the polls closed Tuesday.
"It doesn't look too good for me right now," he said. "I'm not going to concede anything, but that's a pretty powerful vote for Rob Santos."
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Santos, meanwhile, was encouraged by his strong showing in early returns.
"I'm very happy, so far," he said. "I just hope it continues."
And as the night wore on, the Santos lead did just that, holding fast with no signs of slippage.
The Turlock tilt was one of three contested seats in three irrigation district elections Tuesday.
Unlike Turlock, however, the incumbents in the Modesto and Oakdale irrigation districts held comfortable leads.
The MID's Cecil Hensley had received 2,323 votes, or 63.4 percent, against challenger Nicholas S. "Nick" Bavaro, who garnered 1,326, or 36.2 percent.
In Oakdale, Frank Clark had received 622 votes, or 63.4 percent, apparently fending off a challenge by Richard Sylvester, who had collected 356 votes, or 36.3 percent.
In the Turlock race, Santos built his campaign around the need for change. He said he wanted the TID to play a larger role in helping preserve farmland.
Santos raised questions about the planned surface water treatment plant, which would divert Tuolumne River water to Turlock and Ceres. He said he was worried that the plant would take water from farmers to meet the needs of urban customers.
He also said that the district needed to focus more on water conservation and overall system efficiencies.
Crowell, a farmer himself, said that while he preferred that the district maintain its agricul-tural character, the TID had no control over growth.
Santos said climate change will change that equation and could lead to water shortages.
Crowell, however, argued that the district had never experienced a serious water shortage and was taking steps, through projects such as the water treatment plant, to ensure such shortages would not happen.
Santos said he believed that his message of change and the need for stronger conservation resonated with voters.
"I don't think it's anything against Mike Crowell," he said. "Mike's a great guy. But I think there's a trend in this valley toward conservation and renewable sources of energy."
Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2384.