MODESTO -- A closed-session vote Tuesday brought a sudden end to the Modesto Irrigation District's controversial plan to sell water to San Francisco.
The board voted 5-0 to cease negotiations with the city, after the parties deadlocked on contract revisions sought by the Modesto district.
With that, a debate that has roiled the Modesto area for nearly a year -- pitting people worried about water shortages against others who saw a windfall for the Modesto district -- appears to be over.
"I'm very pleased with it," said board member Larry Byrd, an opponent from the start. "This is what needed to be done to save our community, and we did it."
The contract involved 2,240 acre-feet of Tuolumne River water per year, about 1 percent of the Modesto district's average annual deliveries to farmers and the treatment plant serving Modesto-area domestic users. San Francisco would have taken it into its Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, upstream on the river.
The plan included a study of a potential sale of an additional 25,000 acre-feet -- water that would have been freed up by conservation projects on district canals.
The city agreed to a starting price of $700 per acre-foot in the first sale, about 70 times what the irrigation district's farmers pay. The cost would have been spread among about 2.6 million Hetch Hetchy customers in four Bay Area counties.
Two points critical
Two proposed revisions to the sale contract were unacceptable, said Steven Ritchie, assistant general manager for the water enterprise at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
One would have allowed the Modesto district to reduce the sale volume during dry years in proportion to the cuts for farmers and domestic users in the irrigation district, he said.
"Since we would be paying a premium price, we felt that we really do need this water all the time," he said.
The other revision would have granted the Modesto district the right to end the sale for any reason, Ritchie said. "For us, that really put this water at risk."
Modesto city officials have said the sale would have violated the 2005 agreement under which the district will supply water to an expanded treatment plant. The board postponed four votes on the sale since May so those issues could be discussed.
"It looks like in my mind that they were trying to get San Francisco to address some of our concerns," Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh said, "and they were not willing to do that."
The vote was welcome news to the Tuolumne River Trust, which argued that the sale would reduce flows below Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
"We feel the water is best used locally in the river to improve the health of the salmon population," said Patrick Koepele, the group's deputy executive director. "San Francisco can meet its water needs through water conservation and water use efficiency."
In a letter to the Modesto district dated Tuesday, SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington said the sales would "maintain MID's existing supplies and result in no harm to resources in the lower Tuolumne River."
He added that San Francisco officials "remain open to further discussions."
Board Chairman Tom Van Groningen said "anything is possible" in the future, but for now, the sales are off the table.
The income from the sales could have paid for an estimated $115 million in upgrades to the irrigation district's system. They include the small reservoirs that would free up the water for sale, along with connections between canals and replacement of the nearly century-old flume that carries the main canal over Dry Creek.
The income also could have covered the Modesto district's estimated $25 million cost for a new federal hydropower license for Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne.
Tuesday's vote was a turnaround from the 4-1 vote in January to have the district complete negotiations on the first sale. Van Groningen and directors Nick Blom, Glen Wild and Paul Warda favored the move.
"I said all along I didn't care if we sold water or not," Wild said Tuesday. "I was concerned about paying the bills."
Van Groningen said he would like to form an advisory committee representing various interests to explore other ways to pay for canal system improvements. "We will have to direct our energy toward whatever it is we can do for a 21st century water delivery system for the farming community," he said.
Jake Wenger, a walnut and almond grower west of Modesto, said he did not like the idea that San Francisco would have had the "right of first refusal" on other Modesto district sales. He also noted the 50-year term for the first sale and the lack of escape clauses for the district.
"The only way MID could get out of the contract is if the city and county of San Francisco let them out," he said.