Harsh words, lawsuit threats greet Modesto plan to sell water to SF

The Modesto BeeMay 9, 2012 

MODESTO -- Critics let the rhetorical barbs fly Tuesday about the Modesto Irrigation District's proposed water sale to San Francisco.

And later Tuesday one member of the Modesto City Council raised the possibility of legal action.

"What you're doing is an act of tyranny," Modesto resident Linda Hodges told the district board, which could vote on the first small sale May 22.

She and other opponents said they do not believe assurances the sales would leave the MID with an adequate supply from the Tuolumne River during drought.

Proponents say the sales, mostly involving water freed up by conservation projects, could cover an estimated $140 million in upcoming expenses in the MID system.

"We need to sell this water because they are willing to pay the highest price," said Modesto resident Josh Vander Veen.

About 120 people packed the boardroom for a debate that lasted nearly three hours.

The MID and San Francisco released a draft contract last week that envisions the city buying 2,240 acre-feet per year, about 1.2 percent of MID's average farm deliveries.

San Francisco would pay $700 per acre-foot to start, with annual increases of up to 3 percent. The MID's farmers are paying close to $30 per acre-foot for their basic water allotment this year, after a rate increase approved Tuesday.

The MID ultimately could sell 27,200 acre-feet, about 15 percent of its annual farm deliveries, at prices to be determined.

It became evident Tuesday that local elected officials are taking sides on the proposed water sales.

A letter surfaced in which Ruben Villalobos, chairman of the Modesto City Schools board, urged Modesto Councilwoman Stephanie Burnside "not to take any hasty action" toward litigation.

The Modesto City Council discussed a case of potential litigation in closed session Tuesday. The agenda item said it was a conference with legal staff to discuss whether to initiate a lawsuit against an undisclosed party. City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood later said there was nothing to report from the closed session.

Burnside declined after Tuesday's council meeting to comment on Villalobos' letter. Asked whether the city should pursue legal action over the water sales, she said: "We are considering it, but at this point I am going to reserve comment until after decisions are made."

In the letter to Burnside last week, Villalobos said he was aware that community members had urged the councilwoman to support a lawsuit against the MID to stop the water transfer. The letter suggested that opponents were misinformed about the facts of the transfer. Villalobos urged Burnside to wait until an environmental review is conducted. "To file suit prior to this process would be to act without knowing all the facts," he wrote.

San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System serves about 2.5 million water customers in four Bay Area counties. Most of the supply comes from the Tuolumne upstream of the MID's diversion.

Tim O'Laughlin, the district's general counsel, said a review of drought records shows the MID could sell the 2,240 acre-feet without harm to its farmers or Modesto-area residents who receive treated river water.

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