Selling Tuolumne River water to growers just outside borders of the Modesto Irrigation District for $60 an acre-foot should cover the district’s costs while remaining low enough to attract buyers, the MID board agreed Tuesday.
The vote was unanimous, but clearly represented a compromise because some wanted to charge more, and others, a bit less.
Selling to neighboring growers, according to theory, will decrease the groundwater they pump, helping preserve the water table – a critical resource for all in dry years.
“I applaud you guys for thinking regionally,” said Terry Withrow, a Stanislaus County supervisor.
The sale is only for 2017, although board member Larry Byrd hopes to shop more water in future years. No environmental study is necessary, and water sold must be used by established farms now relying on groundwater, MID assistant general manager John Davids said.
We’ve got a ton of water we want to offer to farmers right now. We’re helping out the region.
Nick Blom, MID board
“This is a great idea, a way to bring to benefits to every ratepayer in the district,” the board’s Jake Wenger said.
Lawyers representing unnamed farmers agreed, but questioned whether MID is charging too little. Bob Fores, for example, called water “liquid gold” and suggested $100 to $150 an acre-foot; Stacy Henderson noted that a few years ago, MID considered selling far less water to San Francisco at a far higher price – $700 per acre-foot.
MID estimates neighbors will buy about 24,000 acre-feet of surplus water this year. That won’t hurt existing customers, including farmers and the city of Modesto – which treats river water before mixing it with groundwater and delivering it to taps – because they will get all the water they need this year, Davids said.
You owe it to the public ... to make this a little bit more transparent.
Tom Hicks, Tuolumne River Trust attorney
Tom Hicks, representing the Tuolumne River Trust, and Fores questioned the path that MID took to arrive at Tuesday’s vote. The issue surfaced two weeks ago at a board meeting that began an hour earlier than usual; several interested parties, including The Modesto Bee, missed the action when MID made no effort to call attention to the break in routine.
“That does have an odor of evasiveness,” Hicks said. Fores said the “lack of transparency” hurt MID’s credibility, and said the groundwater recharge issue should have been thoroughly vetted in public forums.
Board member John Mensinger apologized, calling the anomaly “an innocent mistake on our part.” Two weeks ago, Mensinger voted against the sale, saying the idea was half-baked, but he later changed his mind because staff satisfactorily answered his questions.
“The nice thing is we’ve done a do-over” with Tuesday’s public discussion and vote, Mensinger said.
This is not about drawing revenue and fattening up the water side of our business. Get the dollar value out of your mind. We have to make it to where they want this water.
Larry Byrd, MID board
Board members Nick Blom and Paul Campbell initially favored charging neighbors $75 for an acre-foot of water, while Wenger and Byrd preferred $55. Two weeks ago, the board favored $50 an acre-foot, but a cost-of-service analysis done since recommended $55.
Just before the sale discussion, the MID board agreed to spend more money than anticipated to finish implementing a new billing and customer service system. The initial budget was $20 million, but delays blamed on a subcontractor’s error, and other changes, will push the price to about $24 million.
Noting that disappointment, Blom and Campbell said it would be smarter to sell water to neighbors at $75 per acre-foot. They eventually came down to $60, and Byrd reluctantly agreed.
“The last thing we want to do is discourage guys from using this water,” Byrd said.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390