State

Stanislaus County drops pumping contract

Tired of paying an inflated share to keep some farms from flooding, Stanislaus County leaders said Tuesday they will terminate a joint powers agreement in hopes of forcing new negotiations with landowners and state officials.

Taxpayers throughout the county shouldn't foot the bill to keep a few dozen farmers dry along the San Joaquin River, some county supervisors said, when the farmers pay nothing.

Nor does state government, which about five decades ago built the levees that created the problem. The county's exit might put enough pressure on the state to force a return to the bargaining table, supervisors reasoned.

Protection for 10,000 acres

At issue is Gomes Lake, a dry-to-marshy area along the river north of Crows Landing Road and west of Carpenter Road that swells into a larger body of water during wet winters. Turlock Irrigation District canals used to drain water flowing from Turlock into the river through that area until farmers in 1959 persuaded the state to build levees.

But gates close when the river rises, forcing water to back up. So the TID, Turlock and the county formed a joint powers authority in 1972 to pump the water over a levee and into the river. That provides critical protection to about 10,000 mostly rural acres.

Farmers pay nominal assessments to Reclamation Districts 2063 and 2091, but they contribute nothing for expensive pumping costs during wet winters. Some growers pleaded Tuesday with county officials not to walk away from the partnership.

"It's not very pretty when you've got miles and miles underwater," said Joe Sallaberry of Reclamation District 2063. He estimated 20 miles are in jeopardy in his district.

Dan Lamb of District 2091 said he lost a rental house and several hundred acres of alfalfa in the 1997 flood. The county's exit will create a leadership vacuum, he predicted, setting "in motion a process with unpredictable consequences."

Supervisor Vito Chiesa, who represents much of the land at risk, asked how fair it is for people from Salida, Oakdale or elsewhere in the county to solve those farmers' problem.

The county pays 45 percent of the authority's bills, Turlock pays 35 percent and the TID, which operates the pumps, is responsible for 20 percent. Farmers and the state pay nothing.

Recent pump repairs cost $404,216 over three years, though the county expects to pay only $10,000 this year for routine maintenance.

Termination in 1 year

Supervisors voted unanimously to terminate the agreement as of August 2010. That move should "bring some acuity to negotiations" with farmers and the state in the coming year, Supervisor Jeff Grover said.

Chiesa said Turlock intends to pull out of the authority permanently by using its own drains.

Supervisor Jim DeMartini said, "In my opinion, TID has a large liability and should pay more."

But the TID is not inclined to increase its 20 percent share, said Jeff Barton, assistant general manager.

A study would pinpoint benefits accruing to each agency, said Matt Machado, the county's public works director. State officials seem willing but could take years to conduct the study, Machado said.

"It's obvious the percentage split is completely unfair to the county," said Supervisor Bill O'Brien. "That sounds like another reason to cancel the contract, and that's to get the state of California to the table."

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

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