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North San Joaquin Water Conservation District approves Tracy Lakes project, picks new director

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Posted: Friday, November 18, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 5:57 am, Fri Nov 18, 2011.

When the board of directors gave the green light on the Tracy Lakes project Thursday, they created the first improvement district of the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District.

"We are coming here with $636,000, we want to do the project, we want to make this district successful," said Dan Leonard, a landowner on the Tracy Lakes side.

When it came to the vote, the board was unanimously in favor, save for new director Joe Valente, who abstained. Attorney Roger Masuda guided the proceedings with a heavy hand to keep the board on track.

"With great reservation, definitely," said vice president Joe Petersen when his vote was called for.

During the discussion period, Petersen expressed frustration that a landowner, not the water district, is footing much of the bill of a major project.

"It's a mistake that we don't have that money," he said.

"That's water under the bridge," replied secretary Mark Beck.

Another concern was that creating the improvement district requires a separate bank account to keep track of it.

"This district doesn't even have their hat on straight and we're adding another level of management," said Petersen.

Masuda assured him that other districts are successful with similar projects.

"This mechanism is a good model for others in the district if farmers are willing to step up and pay," he said.

The project diverts water from the Mokelumne River and into the Tracy Lakes area. The landowners are allowing the district to use the land at no charge. John Franzia, who owns vineyards nearby, will pump the water out to irrigate his vineyards.

The benefit is twofold, furthering the district's goals of reducing groundwater strain. First, Franzia will be using surface water to irrigate instead of groundwater. Secondly, as the water is stored in the lake, a certain amount will filter down into the groundwater table.

Because this water is coming out of the water district's allocation from East Bay Municipal Utility District, the cost of the water is paid to the water district. For the right to commence this project and use the water from the river, the landowners are paying the water district in three ways.

First, there's the capital assessment: a payment of $75,000 a year for 10 years beginning as soon as the project commences. Next, the landowners pay 65 percent of operations and maintenance costs, estimated at approximately $30,000 to $40,000 a year, indefinitely. Lastly is the actual cost of water. The landowners will pay $2 per acre-foot of water for the first year. Area growers often pay approximately $17 to $25 an acre-foot, but this is considered a special case.

The water district doesn't have a current budget or financial statements, and hasn't released the meeting minutes for several months. It was difficult to determine exactly how much it was costing the district to give water to the Tracy Lakes project, so this is considered an interim solution. At the end of the first year, when the financial statements of the water district are clear, that cost will be reassessed and a new water rate determined.

Representation for the landowners emphasized that this project was for everyone's benefit.

"If people like them don't start doing this, the groundwater table will continue to decline, causing everyone's costs to go up," said Jennifer Spaletta, attorney for the Tracy Lakes landowners.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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