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MID says he stole water and owes $200k. But this board member says the water was his.

Kevin Gonzalves, Merced Irrigation District Division 4 Director, during a board of directors meeting in Merced, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Gonzalves is accused of unauthorized water diversion from a waterway containing Merced Irrigation District water.
Kevin Gonzalves, Merced Irrigation District Division 4 Director, during a board of directors meeting in Merced, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. Gonzalves is accused of unauthorized water diversion from a waterway containing Merced Irrigation District water. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

The Merced Irrigation District is accusing one of its own board members of stealing more than $200,000 worth of district water to irrigate his almond orchard.

Staff with the Merced Irrigation District sent board director Kevin Gonzalves a cease and desist letter last month after finding that he was pumping water from Canal Creek to his own orchards.

During a meeting on Tuesday, the board took no action on an appeal from Gonzalves and voted to allow district staff to pursue legal action if necessary.

After receiving information about the possible diversion at the end of June, MID staff visited Gonzalves’ property outside of Winton and found a diesel pump and pipe system was being used to water his almond orchard, which appeared in good health, according to MID documents. Staff found no active billing records for Gonzalves since 2015. Furthermore, billing records showed Gonzalves’ usage of MID water significantly dropped in 2014 and 2015 compared to previous years.

Gonzalves spoke with district staff and acknowledged using the pump system to irrigate his orchards, but he said the pond he was pumping from was privately owned and he had riparian water rights on Canal Creek, the source of the pond water.

The district argued the water that runs down Canal Creek is not natural and comes from district deliveries from Lake McClure.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, an attorney representing Gonzalves said floodwater filled the creek even in drought years when MID made no water deliveries. Anthony Chavez, with the Irvine firm Best Best & Krieger, also disputed the number of acre-feet of water the district said Gonzalves diverted without authorization.

The district estimated that from 2014 to 2017, Gonzalves diverted 530 acre-feet of water, which translated to more than $200,000.

But Chavez said that much water wouldn’t be necessary to irrigate Gonzalves’ 36 acres. Chavez also said the pump wasn’t operational until August 2015.

“That number is basically absurd,” he said at the meeting.

In an appeal letter to MID, Gonzalves provided multiple receipts from MID showing he paid thousands to the district in 2014 and 2015 for water orders. Those statements conflict numbers MID recorded in its agenda item that show deliveries to Gonzalves decreased in 2014 and 2015. The statements also indicate Gonzalves may have had multiple accounts with the district.

“There’s no evidence here that the district can act on to charge Mr. Gonzalves with the unauthorized use of water,” Chavez said.

Board Directors David Long, Billy Pimentel and Jeff Marchini took no action and did not discuss the issue. Director Scott Koehn was absent. Gonzalves recused himself while the board considered the issue in open and closed session.

Long read a statement reaffirming the board’s commitment to MID rules and ethics.

MID officials declined to comment further on the matter.

After the meeting, Chavez said he and Gonzalves would look into other options, but declined to comment further. Gonzalves left the MID meeting when he recused himself and did not return a Sun-Star message seeking comment.

In 2014, MID’s board (including Gonzalves) unanimously voted to revise its rules and rates for unauthorized water diversions. The revision also said that subsequent unauthorized uses of water would result in forfeiting irrigation water for the rest of the season.

This is not the first time Gonzalves has faced controversy while serving on the MID board.

In 2013, legal consultants shot down a proposal that MID help finance a new pipeline on private property owned by Gonsalves, calling it a conflict of interest and a gift of public funds. Although Gonzalves denied bringing the pipeline project to the board, emails obtained by the Sun-Star showed he requested changes for a board agenda item.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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