Jeff Jardine

Water deal ditched

One element of U.S. history that remains relevant today, particularly here in the West, is the fight for water.

Whether it's Los Angeles pilfering the Owens River, the city of San Francisco trying to suck the Tuolumne River bone-dry or developers wrangling the precious lifeblood away from farmers, water is a huge part of our past, present and future.

That is why the state demands kids begin studying water issues as fourth-graders and again in greater detail as high school juniors.

So consider the good fortune of the students of Modesto's Enochs High School, who need only look to the back of the campus to find an ongoing water dispute. This one involves some landowners along Roselle Avenue and Modesto City Schools and is so touchy that Board of Education members won't discuss it publicly because it could result in a lawsuit. They considered the matter in closed session in August.

In 2004, with construction under way on Enochs High, the Modesto Irrigation District's Litt/Sylvan ditch posed a problem because it cut through what are now the school's athletic fields.

The ditch provided irrigation water to several 0.66-acre parcels along Roselle, northwest of the school property.

Some of the homeowners didn't use the ditch water and signed away their rights to the school district. But three homeowners did or had used it and cut a deal with the district. They were paid $11,000 each for surrendering their MID rights to the school district, which agreed to provide irrigation water from the well it planned to dig on the school property. In one document, the district projected the well would produce 800 gallons per minute.

A letter dated June 23, 2004, states the water would be "provided at no cost to these properties for as long as these properties remain single-family properties." The district also promised to install hookups to the new well for their irrigation water (and did).

That correspondence, on district letterhead, was signed by Scott Ousdahl, who was the Modesto City Schools' director of facilities and construction, and the three homeowners. Ousdahl succumbed a year later to cancer.

"After he died," homeowner Hector Herrera said, "everything went sour."

Herrera claims a year passed before he learned the well was functioning and the water was available for irrigation.

The district intends to renegotiate the agreement because Ousdahl had no authority to make such a deal.

"The board never approved it," said Debbe Bailey, Modesto City Schools' deputy superintendent and chief business official. "They never saw the written agreement (between Ousdahl and the homeowners)."

Nor, she said, was the deal consummated when the board OK'd the $11,000 payments to each of the three homeowners. The board paid them only to surrender their MID water rights, Bailey said, and was unaware of the other details in the document.

Herrera said the district simply is reneging on its promise to make the water available for as long as those properties remain single-family homes.

"They have a proposal where they want to give us a limit of 20 years," said Herrera, who has lived on Roselle Avenue for 31 years. "There was no such agreement.

Gary and Carrie Cook, who have since bought one of the homes involved, believe the water rights remain with the property, not the property owner, and that no time limit should be imposed.

Gary Cook said he agreed to listen to the district and countered with a proposal to have the district install sprinklers on his property, since he would have to pay the added electrical costs of pumping water from his own well. But, he contends, his suggestion was rejected and the district is simply trying to force its new deal upon them.

"They don't want to negotiate," Cook said. "They want to dictate."

"It's frustrating not to get any cooperation out of them," Carrie Cook said.

Neither Herrera nor the Cooks will sign what they claim is the district's last, best offer, they said.

"I told them I wanted to resolve this without the attorneys," Cook said. "All it will cost them is whatever it takes to run the pump when we use the water."

The perceived threat of litigation has board members clamming up and a water issue boiling, albeit in a relatively small cauldron.

Regardless of the outcome, it's another war about water in California. The history books are full of them, and this one is happening right there on the Enochs High campus.

The teachers need only to look to the back of the property for their next lesson.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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