Ag Today August 9, 2016

By Jake Abbott/ jabbott@tcnpress.com

Some 110 irrigation customers in the North Yuba Water District had their water shut off July 24, prompting farmers to look for alternatives during irrigation season.

“When we reached the moment where supply was exhausted, the board suggested to contact customers and provide them with what the cost would be moving forward,” said Jeff Maupin, NYWD district manager.

 Irrigation customers said the quote for proportional shares of water from the district was too high and was unaffordable.

Maupin said one of the factors that played into the decision to restrict irrigation outtake from the canal was the fact the district is required to provide water to the domestic customers first and foremost. He said there are about 800 domestic customers in the district.

Under contract with South Feather Water and Power since 2005, the district is on a “three block system.” The first block allocates 3,700 acre-feet of water to the district at no extra cost to the customers. Once that supply is depleted, the district goes into block 3 — 20,000 acre-feet allotted — that pulls water from a local dam, which requires customers to sign a contract for proportional shares at power generation costs. (Block 2 is a contract to supply water to Yuba City).

Maupin said the district had not completely exhausted the 3,700 acre-feet in block 1 by the cutoff date, but said he calculated that by the end of the year, the district would have exceeded the allotment, prompting him and the board to make the decision to contract water out to irrigation customers.

He said the calculation was done by taking 7 cubic feet per second and multiplying it by the total amount of seconds in a day, and then multiplying that number by the amount of days left in the irrigation season. The season starts on April 15 and ends Oct. 15.

“We got to a point that it was cost prohibitive,” Maupin said.

Cost prohibitive

Irrigation customers were not happy.

“I was receiving water until about two weeks ago, and I was paying about $53 a month,” said Don Bartel, irrigation customer in the district and former environmental biologist. “Now, they reached out to me and said they want about $9,200 to continue providing services.”

He said the district and its customers are on the verge of a “complete breakdown” if current conditions continue.

The quotes customers received were for up to a “miner’s inch” of water, or about 9 acre-feet, for the irrigation season.

Donna Corson said the price she was quoted was “outrageous.”

She was paying about $60 a month from May to July. When the water was shut off, she reportedly received a quote for half of a miner’s inch of water totaling $4,476.05.

“It’s going to devastate my property and the fruit trees I have,” Corson said. “My homestead, that I’ve nurtured over 40 years, will be dying. I’ve gotten through two summers of drought, but my well can’t support it this year.”

Corson said the district manager’s figures were in worst-case scenario terms, meaning a customer was quoted as if they were the only person purchasing the water, not on a scale that fluctuated by the amount of customers that signed a contract.

Maupin said that wasn’t true, and as more and more irrigation customers backed out of their contract with the district, the quotes became more costly for each customer.

“We calculated everybody’s proportional shares out,” Maupin said. “As customers continued to back out, the prices continued to climb.”

Calculations questioned

District Board member Jenny Cavaliere, who is also the irrigation director, has worked for the district for 23 years. She said her own calculations regarding how much people should be charged for additional water was much less than Maupin’s.

“It was totally inflated with water accounting, with absolutely no backing,” Cavaliere said. “It was a scare tactic.”

Cavaliere said she met with the district manager following a board meeting on July 28 to go over numbers, but he wouldn’t discuss how he came to the figures.

She said the situation is getting worse by the day for the district’s customers.

“It’s an economic, ecological disaster here in the district,” Cavaliere said. “People will lose their orchards and pastures.”

County DA Contacted

The North Yuba Water Alliance, a group of over 200 residents in the district, is comprised of both irrigation and domestic customers. Cavaliere, Bartel and Corson are all active members in the group.

Group representatives met with Yuba County District Attorney Patrick McGrath on Wednesday to see if any charges could be filed against the district regarding the shutting off of water and the rate hikes.

“This is a district that has historically had some differences of opinion between the rate payers and the folks who are running on the board of the district,” McGrath said. “These concerns generally are — because it’s an independent district — how a district is run, which ultimately comes down to how the folks in the district vote.”

He said he is always willing to meet with citizen groups to give practical advice and provide options, but ultimately can’t take any actions if there are no laws being broken.

McGrath said he didn’t find anything criminal in the group’s concerns that they presented at the meeting.

“Because it’s an independent district with its own board, it stands as its own political entity,” McGrath said