Jeff Jardine

Jeff Jardine: Water meetings deepen public participation

The crowd attending an Oakdale Irrigation District special board meeting on Jan. 23 overflows into the hallway at the district office.
The crowd attending an Oakdale Irrigation District special board meeting on Jan. 23 overflows into the hallway at the district office. Modesto Bee file

In theory, at least, public meetings are where elected officials do the public’s business in public.

But in most cases, the public is the missing element. A city council meeting, as an example, might draw 300 people because there’s a marquee (translate: volatile) issue, such as Wood Colony development on the Modesto council’s agenda earlier in the year. Many other meetings are pretty uneventful, attended by staff along with a few regulars who keep an eye on the elected. Otherwise, agendas can involve a slew of pedestrian items handled on a single consent calendar, patting local organizations or individuals on the back for good deeds, and then a few actual items that will affect specific neighborhoods or residents before going into closed sessions to discuss lawsuits and personnel matters.

Same with the county’s Board of Supervisors. Some meetings have high-profile issues that draw crowds. Others are over in about the same amount of time it takes to get a pair of eyeglasses at the mall.

It takes issues that affect people personally to convince them to participate in the process, and none these days affects more people than water. Some boardrooms that once had empty seats have dealt with crowds overflowing into the hallways during key meetings when water is the key item. It’s the same up and down the state, and at every level of government.

This week, Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa has been attending the California State Association of Counties convention in Anaheim, where he will be installed as president Thursday night.

Last year, he said, a breakout session on water issues drew every single supervisor.

“This year was the redux,” Chiesa said. “We had to bring in extra chairs because there were so many people participating. People are passionate about it, and their passion is based on fear. Another year of drought (in the foothills) and we’ll have three dry reservoirs” – New Melones, Don Pedro and McClure.

And those folks are elected officials entrusted with finding solutions. There’s a greater panic among those who have already seen their wells go dry and can’t get a driller out soon enough or can’t afford the cost of a new well.

Stanislaus County’s water advisory committee is loaded primarily with members of the agricultural community who have a vested interest in preserving their access to water, primarily pumping. Committee member Mike Lynch, a political consultant, is not one of them.

“This is an all-consuming issue,” he said. “We had meetings at (Modesto Junior College) that drew a couple of hundred. We had a meeting in Oakdale and one at CSU (Stanislaus) where the room that holds 200 was totally packed, the overflow room that holds 75 was totally packed and there were people in the hallways. You don’t just get people who care about irrigation. The Tuolumne River Trust (an environmental group) is there. People want to talk about drinking water – regular people with regular issues.

“There’s no doubt this area is aware of the water issue – the complexity and seriousness of it.”

Water isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue, Lynch said. Stanislaus County voters favored Democratic incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown by only a couple of percentage points over challenger Neel Kashkari, but voted overwhelmingly in favor of the state water bond, he pointed out.

“Two-thirds (64.3 percent) voting in our county, and in Merced County it was 72 percent,” Lynch said. “People know we have issues.”

Bill Zoslocki serves on the Modesto City Council and is a member of the county’s water advisory committee. He sat through the Wood Colony debate last winter and grew frustrated with the personal attacks some of the council members, including Jenny Kenoyer, took from the speakers. While many speakers have been passionate and pleaded for help, the water committee members haven’t been personally targeted with such invective.

“I think this is more of a conversation,” Zoslocki said. “We try to keep personalities out of it. Water is a shared resource. We’ve never been in this kind of position before.”

Not all communities continue to pay attention to their irrigation district boards, though. In January, people overflowed from the Oakdale Irrigation District’s boardroom during a key meeting. Now, fewer people attend regularly, and those who do have to decipher the lawyerspeak of agenda items to know when officials plan to sell water to districts elsewhere in the state.

Which explains why there is no better time than the present to get involved and watch elected officials.

Barking dog ordinances, raising garbage rates, approving zoning changes – all important stuff to some people.

But water, whether pumped from the ground or from the foothill reservoirs, is everybody’s business.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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