Property rights debate bogs down MID

Unusually warm temperatures the past few days have made the four-year drought worse for crops, so Modesto Irrigation District leaders said Tuesday they’re inclined to start farmers’ water season April 12 instead of two weeks later.

The MID board also waded through tricky dialogue with several growers and attorneys who object to proposed rule changes granting ditch tenders carte-blanche access to private property under threat of losing water rights.

Customers have been told not to expect more than 16 inches of canal water this season, compared with a typical 42-inch allotment and far less than needed to keep most crops alive. Sixteen inches represents the least ever delivered by MID since it began capping allotments in 1989, easily eclipsing last year’s depressing record low of 24 inches.

With such a limited supply, deciding when to fill canals with Tuolumne River water becomes a delicate dance. Some crops will die or underproduce if not fed right away, while others require water later in the summer or fall – perhaps after MID runs out of water, if the irrigation season starts too soon.

All farmers who approached the speaker’s rostrum Tuesday urged an earlier start date than the initial April 26 target.

“Our start date needs to be as soon as possible,” Dave Wheeler said, asking for a decision so growers can make plans, including groundwater pumping.

“Sooner might be better than later, especially if we don’t get rain,” Gordon Heinrich agreed.

Ron Fisher noted a scientific study concluding that nut trees, the Valley’s biggest cash crop, need water soon to keep almonds large and avoid dropping from lack of moisture. If forced, nut growers could skimp on water in June, he said, but not in April.

MID might boost this year’s measly allotment to 19 inches or so if 25 farmers with private wells would agree to sell groundwater to the district, board member Jake Wenger said.

Last year, only three well owners participated in the first year of that program. It should be obvious that terms need major revision in favor of well owners, Pete Verburg said.

Terms of proposed changes to irrigation rules sparked most of Tuesday’s fireworks.

Former language allowed MID personnel to go on private property for district business. Staff recently proposed a penalty for refusing entry: termination of water delivery.

Farmers came unglued, venting at last week’s grower meetings, sending emails and letters, and hiring lawyers to stick up for property rights.

Attorneys Stacy Henderson and Bob Fores asked that landowners receive notice.

General Manager Roger VanHoy said he envisions that someone’s water delivery could be skipped and reinstated the next rotation. Wenger said that would make sense, but noted, “That’s not what it says.”

“Words count,” Fores said. “It makes sense to clarify them now.”

Board Chairman Larry Byrd, a former MID ditch tender, said he found the discussion “bothersome” and resents “suddenly being scrutinized over very little things.” He equated the flap with “getting the fly out of the pepper” – apparently a variation on an old saying about picking fly excrement out of pepper – and called for “simplicity and common sense.”

Board member John Mensinger agreed that in a severe drought “ditch tenders have to step up their game. The last thing I’m going to do is make it harder on them. I totally support free access for our associates.”

Bill Ketscher, a retired MID engineering manager who farms in Waterford, said the district should find better ways of penalizing growers suspected of misusing water than cutting off their rights and publicly shaming them, including posting charges on MID’s website.

“Maybe MID should build a set of stocks out front,” he said, drawing laughter. “I just think there are better ways of dealing with people.”

The board is scheduled to vote on new rules at 9 a.m. March 24 in the chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto. That could be a busy meeting, with votes also expected on raising water prices up to 40 percent and whether to bring back drought-coping measures introduced last year. They include farmer-to-farmer water sales on the open market, district-managed transfers for a fixed price and private well owners selling groundwater to MID.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.