MID voters face a tough choice, but Wenger has edge

Jake Wenger poses for a portrait on an almond farm worked on by his family. He is running for re-election to the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors.
Jake Wenger poses for a portrait on an almond farm worked on by his family. He is running for re-election to the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors. TNS

Mad that your electric bill was higher in August than it’s ever been?

Outraged that farmers pay so little for water?

Incredulous that Modesto Irrigation District employees get such princely wages?

These issues are cause for anger. But are you angry enough to jeopardize MID’s leadership in fighting the state’s unprecedented water grab that has the potential to destroy thousands of valley jobs and cripple our economy?

Stu Gilman is a smart businessman who lives in Modesto and decided to run after reading in The Bee about some of MID’s most unacceptable and wasteful practices. He points to higher-than-necessary electricity rates for 100,000-plus customers and lower-than-reasonable ag water rates for roughly 3,000 farmers. Gilman would shake up an MID board long considered a club for farmers. It needs it.

Jake Wenger is a bright young farmer who has been both articulate and ferocious in defending our region’s water rights against the state’s destructive water grab. The son of the California Farm Bureau president, Wenger helped guide the district through one of California’s most severe droughts causing MID to slash water deliveries and raise water prices. Even so, ag water rates remained among the lowest in the state. After four years on the board, Wenger’s heard the anger over bungled billings and high electricity costs. But what will he do about it?

Both are running to represent Division 4, covering northwest Modesto, Salida and Wood Colony. It’s a tough choice.

No one argues that Modesto farmers don’t have a sweet deal. The Bee and many others believe it’s too sweet. What they pay for irrigation water simply doesn’t cover the cost of delivering it. To make up the difference, some costs are pushed to the electricity side of the ledger. That means electricity costs more.

Several ratepayers sued, saying portions of electricity profits – roughly $93 million per year – are used to unfairly subsidize ag-water users. Others put the figure at $17 million a year. Regardless, it’s a big number that both candidates acknowledge.

Wenger points to a similar lawsuit in Redding, saying if it goes against the water agency then changes at MID will be made “instantaneously – and I’ll be the first one to make it happen.”

The district has commissioned two parallel studies by two different companies to look at the costs of delivering water and electricity. But we believe the district already has a good idea of the costs of delivery, but has refused to allow rates to reflect it. That must change.

But something Wenger said troubles us more.

“Everyone likes to use the word subsidy,” he said. “The electric side owns the turbines, but they don’t own the water behind the dam. … If that was PG&E, would they give them the water for free to generate power? The answer is no. There is no subsidy if the electric side is receiving a benefit.”

Neither side owns the water; the right to use it belongs to every single person living in the district. There must be no “side” in settling costs and setting prices.

If Gilman is elected, it will be the first time that “urban” residents have held a board majority. That alone might alter the district’s priorities. But we’re equally concerned about some of his campaign promises.

Many in Salida have dreams of becoming a city. Gilman is promising to have MID deliver surface water to Salida, replacing what the suburban area now gets from Modesto city wells. How?

Modesto residents spent $150 million to build a water treatment plant that MID operates. All the water treated in that plant belongs to Modesto. Does Salida intend to build its own plant at a cost of $175 million or even $200 million?

It also concerns us that as of two weeks ago Gilman had never attended an MID board meeting. And he should not have used his church’s pulpit two weeks ago to campaign. In campaign literature, Gilman has stressed the cost of electricity. But MID rates have been steady for five years; having 31 days of 100-plus is what drove up electricity bills, not rate hikes.

We see the value in shaking up this board, and we absolutely want someone who will make the interests of electricity customers their top priority.

We also recognize that we’re in a generational fight over the water that nourishes our families, farms and economy. It’s a truly tough choice.

Jake Wenger has been a warrior in that water battle. By re-electing him, voters – not just farmers – will keep him on the front lines.