Modesto, Turlock irrigation districts consider merger

gstapley@modbee.comApril 25, 2013 

— The intriguing idea of merging the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts is resurfacing, this time with the MID board chairman's support.

"I think it could save us in the long run," Nick Blom said Thursday. "We are duplicating a lot of administrative stuff (and other functions). Maybe if we work together, it could be done more efficiently."

Blom's counterpart at the TID, Michael Frantz, said he's willing to take a look, but would go along only if consolidating would help TID customers.

The concept emerges from a volunteer advisory committee working on recommendations for improving the MID's canal system. The committee will present its second progress report at an MID board meeting Tuesday; the merger is included in items that might make it in a final report to be presented in coming weeks.

The seven-member advisory committee will present cost estimates for system upgrades totaling $106 million.

That's close to the $115 million estimate in a previous study by California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. The advisory panel was created partly to verify needs cited in the Cal Poly study, in the wake of a huge dispute last year over the idea of selling water to San Francisco.

Proponents said the district could spare the amount to be sold by capturing water that is now wasted because of inefficiencies in the aging system. The advisory panel estimates that upgrades could save 36,370 acre-feet per year, or enough to cover more than 36 football fields in water 1 foot deep.

The committee's idea to explore merging with the TID cites "significant duplications of work that could be eliminated if there was only one district. This may result in a financial savings" to customers, the report says.

Together, the districts serve 8,000 irrigators farming 208,000 acres, as well as 211,000 power customers. The TID covers more than twice the MID's land area, while the MID has the majority of electric accounts.

The districts jointly own Don Pedro Reservoir, which captures mountain snowmelt and supplies both agencies via the Tuolumne River. The partners are in the middle of a multiyear application to renew a federal license.

Blom said TID leaders in casual conversations have not dismissed the concept of joining the MID. Both districts seem financially stable, he said.

Tom Van Groningen said the idea has come up periodically but has not been seriously pursued in his 19 years on the MID board.

"I'm always prepared to explore the potential for cost savings and efficiencies. That's always been my position," Van Groningen said. "Obviously, it would require a similar response and interest from Turlock."

Frantz said, "Like all good ideas, it should be investigated thoroughly. From my perspective, I would need to see a compelling benefit to TID ratepayers."

In a 2005 letter to The Modesto Bee, Bill Seavy said rates could be lowered because customers would pay for only one bureaucracy instead of two. The public utilities would save by having fewer buildings and combining staff handling claims, insurance, personnel matters, equipment and so forth, said Seavy, a former manager for Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a private utility. He repeated the idea in a January letter.

The idea briefly became campaign material in 2005 when all three then-candidates for the MID board endorsed a possible merger.

On Tuesday, the advisory committee will recommend expenses of $11.8 million to fortify an essential flume across Dry Creek "at risk of catastrophic failure" by earthquake or other disaster. Also, the MID should do nearly $7 million worth of monitoring upgrades and spend a half-million dollars on environmental documents required for new reservoirs, the report says.

Additionally, the board should strengthen policies to prevent irrigators from wasting water and taking advantage of the district, and should rehire Cal Poly's Irrigation Training and Research Center to advise the board, the report says.

The committee's final report could feature suggestions on raising water rates, Tuesday's progress report says, to bring in more money for system upgrades.

Nearly two weeks ago, the board passed up an opportunity to raise irrigation rates 10 percent. One board member doesn't want to hurt farmers, while others say the MID should raise water rates much more than 10 percent to lessen subsidies paid by power customers to benefit growers.

The Modesto Irrigation District board meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the district office, 1231 11th St., Modesto.

Modesto Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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