If there’s anything each of the members of the Modesto Irrigation District Board of Directors (MID) knows for sure, it’s that voters hate rate increases. This fact was painfully evident May 13, 2010, when an angry crowd packed the MID boardroom to protest a five dollar a month rate increase in their electrical bills.
And if an angry crowd isn’t enough to discourage rate increases, the Directors also know that anytime an increase is even mentioned, it brings about accusations of mismanagement and waste that most of them would prefer long forgotten, including expanding into the Mountain House District in west San Joaquin County and authorizing a water treatment plant that has been both a monument to slapdash construction and a bottomless money pit.
Thus, when the City of San Francisco offered to pay the MID $700 an acre foot for water, the Directors quite naturally figured they had found the perfect solution for many of the MID’s money woes, especially the estimated $110 million it’s going to take to maintain and upgrade its water delivery systems. The San Francisco offer began with a promise to buy 2,000 acre feet per year with an anticipated upgrade to 25,500 acre feet. Most important, it enabled the Directors to avoid a rate increase on their Modesto and Stanislaus County constituents.
But when word of the proposed sale got out, MID Directors were again besieged with angry customers, some of them the very same people who had protested the electrical rate increase. And once again there were cries of mismanagement and waste. Pressed as they are on the one side with an unavoidable need to increase rates and on the other by constituents who will vote them out if they do, the MID Directors are skewered on the horns of what seems to be a politically fatal dilemma.
Even worse, most of them know the problem is far more complex than mere questions of rates. For one thing, the Tuolumne has been listed by the EPA as an, “Impaired River,” mostly because of high temperatures at its lower end. The almost certain consequence is that the federal government will require increased flow. That means less water will be available for urban and agricultural uses. In fact, it’s highly doubtful the MID has any water to sell at all, given coming restrictions.
One way out, and it appears to be the way the majority of Directors and Manager Allen Short have settled on, is to raise the specter of increased rates. A recent Modesto Bee OP/ED column by attorney Armando Flores claimed, “even a tripling of rates wouldn’t pay for what is needed long range.” MID customers are certain to blanch at a “tripling of rates,” however unlikely, and will probably climb on board the sale wagon as a result.
Close followers of water news in California have known for decades that many water districts have more water contracted than they can deliver. Or, as Sacramento Bee editors recently put it, “Water rights exceed actual total water volume availability.”
Now there is a water panic up and down the state featuring, “transfers,” higher rates, and costly litigation, all signs of the rapidly escalating value of water.
The bottom line is the City of San Francisco is willing to pay $700 an acre foot for water it may use only every third year. That’s an actual price of $2100 an acre foot. And what Valley residents may not yet have twigged to, that price may one day become the financial equivalent of selling Manhattan for a few trinkets and beads. The rush is on.