By Mike Lynch
The water wars are increasing in fury. Out-of-district interests are increasing their pressure to take more water from the Tuolumne River to send to the Delta, to make available to out-of-district agricultural and urban interests and to restore fish flows.
It is a very good thing that the Modesto Irrigation District and the city of Modesto agreed years ago to provide clean Tuolumne River water to the residents of Modesto at the same low raw water cost provided to MID irrigators. Urban use is recognized as the highest beneficial use of water and trumps demands to allocate it elsewhere, particularly in times of shortage.
At the same time that Modesto and MID worked out their arrangements for the water, the Turlock Irrigation District and the cities of Turlock, Ceres and Hughson announced that surface water from Tuolumne would be made available to their residents. All parties celebrated the accord.
But unlike Modesto and the MID, the TID and its cities never worked out the details. Twenty-five years later, all we can point to for progress is the millions of dollars in staff costs and reports for the on-again, off-again discussions.
We now face even more threats. In addition to the state effort to increase the flows into the river for fish and efforts to make water available for agricultural or urban uses outside irrigation district boundaries, most of the cities in TID’s territory are facing a groundwater crisis of epic proportions. The groundwater basin that provides Turlock with its drinking water is being drained at an unprecedented and alarming rate. This is new. Millions of trees planted outside of TID territory on the east side are powered by megawells without regard to impact on the groundwater basin as a whole. That’s why some of the wells in the Denair area have dried up.
Turlock is in the cross hairs. Many of our wells are already contaminated with arsenic, nitrates and other pollutants. The public health of our residents and the economy of our region are at risk. Experts agree that without a supplemental supply of clean water, the costs to treat contaminated water from existing city wells will be in the millions.
Some say Stanislaus County can help by stopping the overpumping on the east side. But will the Board of Supervisors take that step without the active support of TID and the cities of Turlock, Ceres and Hughson?
Long term, the TID must fulfill the commitment it made 25 years ago to provide surface water at the same rate as irrigation water to the cities within its borders. Some believe this surface water should be reserved for agricultural uses only, but all TID’s constituents – ratepayers and farmers – should be treated fairly.
There is a little publicized fact that helps explain why irrigation rates in TID are among the lowest in California. Irrigators are not charged anywhere near the cost of the water that is delivered to them. Every power customer in TID pays a 3 percent to 4 percent surcharge in his or her monthly bill to cover the irrigation service shortfall. TID, which prides itself on transparency in its billing, highlights different costs in its monthly electricity invoices, but the charge for irrigation services is never listed.
TID power customers, the vast majority of whom live in the cities within TID, paid most of TID’s share of the bonds that were used to construct Don Pedro. In addition, they pay for the shortfall in any capital or operational costs on the irrigation side of TID. This amounts to millions of dollars each year.
Our civic leaders in TID and the cities in the TID service area have taken so long to fulfill what MID and Modesto have had for more than 20 years that there soon may be no water to share.
TID, the cities within its borders and Stanislaus County must act, and soon.
Lynch is a government affairs consultant, resident of Turlock and current member of the Turlock Chamber of Commerce board of directors. This was not written on behalf of the chamber.