Every once in a while the curtain lifts just enough to reveal exactly what today’s Modesto Bee is really all about. That’s what happened in its September 19 editorial, when the Bee tried to tiptoe away from its role in the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) water sale fiasco.In what has become typical Bee fashion, the only game in town tried to blame the MID for the controversy and rancor over the failed water transfer:
“What the MID must do differently when it develops this [new] plan is to make the whole process very public….one of the reasons this water sale plan became contentious was that the MID was not fully open with the public about what it was trying to achieve.”
Not fully open? The major reason the sale became contentious was the Bee’s ill-considered decision to support the transfer despite voluminous reasons to oppose it. The Bee then compounded its error by attempting to demonize opposition while suppressing facts that ultimately made the sale impossible to consider, let alone close.
From the beginning, the Bee cast its lot with an MID management team that hadn’t exactly distinguished itself in recent years. Its chief accomplishment seemed to be mastery of an improbable alchemy that somehow managed to transform water into red ink.
MID management aside, it soon became clear to many observers that the Bee and the MID had jumped blindly into supporting a contract one-sidedly in favor of the city slickers from San Francisco.
To the Bee’s credit, major flaws in the contract were revealed in Community Columns by local businessman John Mensinger and newly-elected MID Director Larry Byrd. Mensinger and Byrd pointed out that the first right of refusal clauses and the long term nature of the contract were much to the disadvantage of MID customers. Their commentary began a pattern that was to hold throughout the length of the controversy: There was more news to be had about the water sale on the Bee’s OP/ED page than in the news sections.
The Bee thus began the water sale controversy far behind the arc of the story and never caught up. Local farmers were especially aware not only of MID management’s recent staggers and stumbles, but also that the MID itself had begun trumpeting the realities of water shortages at least as far back as 2007, when it invoked the Raker Act to forestall what it saw as the possibility of a San Francisco attempt to grab Tuolumne River water. And as late as 2010, the MID was crying bloody murder at the prospect of a state-mandated allotment reduction based on the need to restore salmon runs.
The Bee, however, never bothered to place the sale in its larger context of statewide water shortages and the need to increase flows along the Tuolumne River, nor did it publicly query the MID about its apparent inconsistencies regarding water allotments. Instead, the Bee joined the MID in a campaign that raised the specter of increased water bills and disingenuously suggested the sale involved only a tiny portion of the MID’s water (2,240 acre feet per year).
The problem with the “tiny portion” story was the MID claimed it needed at least $115 million while the “tiny portion” it and the Bee claimed was involved would generate less than $1.5 million per year. It soon became evident to people who thought about it that the sale was about much more than 2,000 acre feet per year. The “tiny portion” was just the foot in the door.
Anyone who doubted the Bee was spinning the water sale story got a rude wakeup call when word spread that the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau (SCFB) had sent a letter to the MID which listed a host of legal objections to the sale, most of them based on what the SCFB viewed as violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The MID and the Bee both received the letter on or about July 31, when the sale was still very much a matter of public interest and debate.
The Bee sat on the story. As of today, the Bee has yet to acknowledge the Farm Bureau’s position.
Needless to say, the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau is neither a collection of wild-eyed radicals nor a ragged consortium of turnip growers from the hinterlands. Its members comprise successful farmers and businessmen with long histories of community involvement and success. When the Farm Bureau takes a position on the largest controversy of the decade it’s not just news, it’s big news.
It’s also news that would have made the public think more than twice about the viability of a water sale the Bee was determined would happen despite the strong likelihood it was illegal.
Throughout the entire water sale controversy, Bee management failed its self-proclaimed mission to inform the people. Yet, as of today, the Bee is lecturing the MID about the need to be “fully open with the public.”
Those who remember when the Bee was an excellent local newspaper can only lament what it has become: a faithful recorder of murders, consensual sex between adults, and lost dog stories. It is also a shameless promoter of its own political agenda, far too eager to blame others when its projects fail.