Groundwater Crisis

Longer MID irrigation season in the works

Irrigation season might extend beyond Sept. 19 for Modesto-area farmers, but they won’t get a larger share of water, for fear of angering those sacrificing to conserve.

Despite the drought, the Modesto Irrigation District probably is in good enough shape to offer both benefits, General Manager Roger VanHoy said Tuesday. But board members, a majority of whom are growers themselves, said it would be unfair to reward those who have been careless by offering them as much extra water as those who have scrimped.

“That is a very, very big mistake and I wish you hadn’t brought it up,” board member Larry Byrd said.

VanHoy said the board could choose to offer extra water at an inflated price. No board member agreed with the idea, although some want to help growers of almonds and walnuts, which require water later in the year than other crops, and certainly after Sept. 19.

“A lot of almonds won’t be (harvested) at that point,” said Modesto farmer Gordon Heinrich. The district delivers water into October and sometimes November in typical years, but has far less this year after a third consecutive dry winter.

Board member Paul Campbell said it would be “wiser to hold (extra water) in reserve for the next season.”

The board will vote on a formal season extension at Tuesday’s meeting and also will consider adding another round of water transfers among growers with private deals to sell portions of their MID allotments. The district has accommodated farmer-to-farmer transfers for requests submitted by June 1 and July 1, and will again after an Aug. 1 deadline; next week’s vote would consider adding a fourth deadline, probably in mid-August.

A farmer in the audience said waiting to make a decision until next week – three days before the next deadline – doesn’t give growers enough time for responsible planning. But state law governing public meetings prohibits agencies from making decisions on items not listed on printed agendas, and Heinrich made his request during a nonspecific open-microphone period.

Another man complained that farmers who take more than their fair share are not being punished.

With more at stake this year, board members agreed that MID no longer can afford to ignore water thefts. Staff initially recommended $300 fines, but the board in February upped that to $1,500.

Board member Jake Wenger said he recently responded to a middle-of-the-night theft complaint, but VanHoy said the district was not able to prove the allegation. No fines have been levied this year, he said.

In another matter, the board reviewed MID efforts to thwart electricity thefts, including the first on record of a commercial customer siphoning power without paying. A team deployed in January has detected 69 thefts and billed cheats an extra $55,300.

“These people are out there trying to get something for nothing,” said Sam Ronveaux, engineering technician supervisor.

Evidence is turned over to police and the county Sheriff’s Department, but prosecutions have not resulted, VanHoy said.

The board also agreed to give US Payments $250 a month for each ATM the company installs to make it easier for people to pay electricity bills.

That should prove cheaper than the wages of 12 temporary employees who staff satellite centers in east Modesto, west Modesto, Riverbank and Waterford, amounting to an estimated cost of $7.84 per transaction. About 13 percent of MID customers prefer paying cash in person, a report says, despite often long waits in line.

“We would like to shrink our lobby traffic,” said Lori Davis, customer service manager. People could deposit money around-the-clock rather than waiting for office hours, she said, and accounts would be updated immediately, as opposed to two-day lags.

US Payments will negotiate with property owners to place kiosks near Dale Road and Pelandale Avenue, and Floyd and Roselle avenues in Modesto, and in the community of Mountain House, Davis said, as well as at MID’s headquarters in downtown Modesto. Other utilities could contract with the company to receive payments at the same automated teller machines, VanHoy said.

A scheduled discussion on 2015 solar rebates was postponed until next week’s meeting, when the board also will discuss extending the irrigation season and more farmer-to-farmer transfers. The meeting will start at 9 a.m. Tuesday in the board chamber at 1231 11th St., Modesto.