With Tuesday’s election, critics of the contentious North San Joaquin Water Conservation District are now in a position to control its future.
Board member Bryan Pilkington is being joined by Marden Wilber and Hugh Scanlon. Pilkington supported Wilber and Scanlon, and the three have advocated against any new fees or taxes for the district. They now form a majority of three on the five-member board.
Wilber was declared the winner of the final divisional race in the district Wednesday morning, edging out incumbent Joe Mehrten by 21 votes. Scanlon defeated Robb Hoag and James Souther during the election.
Pilkington was unavailable for comment Wednesday.
With the balance of power on the district tilted in Pilkington’s favor, the district could be in for an overhaul. Pilkington has advocated for evening meetings, more transparency, and no taxes or fees to generate revenue.
The district has a 20,000-acre-foot allocation of wet-year water from East Bay Municipal Utility District. It has been widely reported that the district’s infrastructure is outdated and it can only make use of 3,000 acre-feet. The district presides over 150,000 acres of agricultural land in and around the city of Lodi.
“I look forward to Pilkington and his guys coming forward with a plan that addresses the area’s water deficit and how to use the water that North San Joaquin has a right to,” said Brad Lange, of LangeTwins Winery.
The newly elected representatives have an obligation to let the public know where they stand, he said.
“They have an opportunity to stand up and speak,” Lange said. “Up to now, they have not.”
Neither Scanlon nor Wilber attended a public forum of candidates hosted by the Lodi District Grape Growers Association in October.
Re-elected board member Mark Beck welcomed the new members and said he looks forward to working with them, but expects them to make their own decisions.
“I want to work with the new board members effectively, and I believe individuals are smart enough to see right from wrong when it comes to serving the district,” Beck said.
Pilkington will push for issues and contradict himself, Beck said. He cited an example of Pilkington pressing to put water into Bear Creek, but then voting against the board when it petitioned the state for a point of diversion that would have enabled the project.
The newly elected Wilber said he is his own man.
“Bryan and I see eye-to-eye, but I’m not going to be a puppet,” Wilber said.
Beck said he looks forward to resolving the district’s issues with the new members.
“I hope that even though (Pilkington) endorsed them, they know we can’t ignore that we have a water right we need to maintain, and we need to use more surface water so we don’t deplete our groundwater,” Beck said.
As for the issue of transparency, Beck said he is completely honest with voters about his positions, and the district is audited annually.
The issue of candidates presenting themselves as “anti-tax” is a moot point because voters rejected initiatives that would have enabled fees for groundwater recharge, Beck said.
While against taxes, Wilber said he would look to grants or stimulus money to fund district projects and repairs. He is a former director for the San Joaquin County Resource Conservation District and was an ad hoc member for the Lower Mokelumne River Watershed Stewardship Planning Committee. He said he has experience in applying for grants, and understands the process. While he admits he doesn’t know all the specifics of the district, he said his previous experience on other committees and water districts will help with the transition.
Joe Mehrten, who was defeated by Wilber, said the district must either look to increase the supply of water or it could have to resort to rationing, something he said would decrease property values and damage the area’s economy.
“The water table is still going down, no matter who got elected,” he said.
The district will also have to find a replacement for retiring manager Ed Steffani. Pilkington and Steffani have publicly clashed on virtually every issue the board has discussed in recent years. While Steffani said he would stick with the board until they found a replacement, he said the board could vote him out.
“My allegiance is to the district and to the people who live and farm here,” he said. “(The board) could decide they don’t want me to remain until they find someone. It’s up to them.”
The district will also choose a new board chairman at its next meeting. The previous chairman was Tom Hoffman, who did not seek re-election.
The district’s next public meeting takes place Dec. 7 at 8:30 a.m. at the Lodi Public Library’s Community Room, 201 W. Locust St.
Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at email@example.com.