Irrigation district races: Newbies testing waters

While the names, faces and approaches are different, the six men seeking election in the Modesto, Turlock and Oakdale irrigation districts agree on this much: The need to preserve and protect the region's long-held right to draw water from the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.

"We have the water," said Frank Clark of the Oakdale Irrigation District, "and other people want it."

Clark, who represents OID Division 1, is one of three incumbents in the three districts hoping to win re-election this fall. He's being challenged by Richard D. Sylvester.

The other incumbents are:

In the MID, Cecil O. Hensley, who is being challenged by Nicholas S. "Nick" Bavaro for the Division 1 chair.

In the TID, Michael V. Crowell will square off against Robert "Rob" Santos in Division 4.

San Francisco's plan to take more water from the Tuolumne River likely will play a role in all three races.

In Oakdale, officials are talking about selling water to San Francisco. Under the plan, Oakdale would ship some of its Stanislaus River water to Modesto Reservoir, to replace water that would be diverted to San Francisco from the Tuolumne River.

Stanislaus County's urban growth, which is gobbling up acres and acres of once productive farmland, also is an issue likely to surface in all three races.

In the MID and the TID, how much money consumers ultimately will pay for electricity is expected to get lots of discussion. The districts supply electricity to homes and busi-nesses in their areas.

While the OID generates some electricity, it sells that power at wholesale rates to Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The complexity of those and other issues has incumbents touting the need to keep their many years of experience on each of their respective boards of directors.

Not surprisingly, the challengers are trying to make the case for change -- arguing it's time for new perspectives and fresh ideas to meet the Northern San Joaquin Valley's changing landscape and climate.

MID: Bavaro vs. Hensley

At 81, Hensley is the elder statesman among irrigation district candidates.

Bavaro, a veteran of county politics and president of the Empire Union School Board of Trustees, already is making reference to Hensley's "advanced" age -- implying that his opponent may no longer be up to the task at hand.

"It's time for new leadership," Bavaro re-cently told The Bee. "I have the energy and the vision. I'm prepared to do the job."

Hensley dismisses the notion that he's too old.

"You know, you're as old as you feel," Hensley said. "I'm in good physical condition. I have no health problems. I've got 36 years of service with the district.

"Before joining the board 16 years ago, I worked as board secretary, assessor, treasurer, collector and general manager. I think my experience is needed."

Bavaro, however, said Hensley lacks leadership skills, pointing out his opponent hasn't served as president or vice president of the MID board.

"That's because I've always turned it down," Hensley said. "I'm not a politician and I've never wanted the limelight. My vote counts just as much. I'd rather work as a team player."

OID: Sylvester vs. Clark

For retired aircraft mechanic Richard Sylvester, there is no more important issue than keeping the district's water.

"I won't vote to send water to San Francisco," he said.

Selling surplus water to San Francisco is under discussion as a way to pay for a $180 million overhaul of the district's irrigation system without raising the rates farmers pay for water.

That's one issue, according to incumbent Frank Clark, that he and his opponent agree upon.

"I'm totally against selling water to San Francisco," Clark said. "It's a terrible idea. San Francisco wants (extra) water in dry years, when we need it most."

Clark, however, is not opposed to selling or trading water with the MID or the TID.

"What we need to do is develop a regional water plan," he said, "to keep the water here, where it's needed."

Clark said the district has made great strides in the six years he's been on the board, raising employee salaries while reducing a $5 million deficit in the process.

"Today," he said, "we've got $30 million in reserve; that's money in the bank."

For Clark, the most important task the district faces is rebuilding and refurbishing basic infrastructure, including canals and pipelines.

Sylvester agrees, but he says selling water to San Francisco is not the way to foot the bill. He suggested that given a choice, he would rather see water rates increase than have the district selling water outside its boundaries.

Sylvester also contends that Clark hasn't always looked out for the best interests of the district's farmers, pointing to a dispute with a small group of Knights Ferry farmers.

"The district needs to be more customer-friendly," Sylvester said. "I know I could do a better job."

TID: Santos vs. Crowell

Turlock veterinarian Rob Santos wants the district to play a larger role in helping to preserve the farmland the district was created to serve.

Santos said he's worried that the planned surface water treatment plant, which will bring Tuolumne River water to Turlock and Ceres, will take water away from farmers.

"When there's plenty of water," Santos said, "everybody's happy. But when water is tight, it's the farmer who takes the brunt of the hit."

Santos said the district needs to focus more on water conservation and system efficiencies.

Michael Crowell, a farmer himself, said while he would prefer to see the TID maintain its agricultural character, the district has no control over growth. That job, he said, rests with city and county government.

"In terms of (water) usage," he said, "it's about the same, whether it's an acre of orchard or an acre of houses."

Santos said climate change -- warmer temperatures and a dwindling Sierra snowpack -- will change that equation and could lead to water shortages.

Crowell, however, said the district has never experienced a serious shortage and is taking steps, through projects such as the surface water treatment plant, to ensure that never happens.

He also claimed credit for helping the board keep a lid on water and power rates during his tenure.

"I've served 16 years on the board," he said, "and with that comes a lot of knowledge, both institutional as well as operational. We work for the public."

Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.