Do we need agriculture in El Dorado County?

EDITOR:

When I was the Agricultural Commissioner I had a conversation with a supposedly educated person about the importance of agriculture in El Dorado County. He told me we didn’t need agriculture because he could buy his food at Safeway. This sounds like the logic that some candidates who are running for the EID board use such as Greg Prada.
The impact of El Dorado County agriculture on our economy is more than a half a billion dollars. These are small family farms unlike the agribusiness we find in the valley. If we were to lose the agricultural industry it would be a major blow to our economy.
Agriculture improves not only our economy but also our quality of life by providing open space. If we did not have agriculture Apple Hill and other agricultural areas would be divided into one acre parcels with more houses and traffic. Traffic levels on Highway 50 would balloon through Placerville with commuters traveling twice a day, year-round, impacting commutes through El Dorado Hills to Sacramento. More homes would also require more government services and more roads to be built. We don’t have the funds to maintain even our present roads, so how we are going to maintain more roads?
Greg Prada and his acquaintances have proposed that EID increase the price of agricultural water 1,500%. El Dorado County farmers are small businesses that are competing against growers throughout the state. El Dorado County farmers are already paying more for their water than other farmers in California. Our farmers could not compete if they had to pay 15 times their current rate and would have to stop farming. And with their property not producing any income land owners would be forced to sell their land to developers. Is that what you want?
This EID election is critical to the future of our county. I urge you to vote for Pat Dwyer in Division 2 and Dr. Dale Coco in Division 4. They are both committed to maintaining our rural quality of life and fair and equitable rates for all classes of customers.
Yes we need agriculture.
Where would Safeway get its produce if it weren’t for farmers?
Bill Snodgrass, Retired El Dorado County Agricultural Commissioner

Do we need agriculture in El Dorado County?

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Message from the EID GM: Challenges ahead

By Jim Abercrombie
(MUG:)

In the course of managing a complex agency like EID, there are a number of constraints and challenges to overcome in order to build a strong, sustainable path forward.

Over nearly ten years, EID has done just that. We built a financial plan that has allowed us to consolidate and reduce our long term debt— all the while raising our ratings in the eyes of the credit agencies, which saves our customers money.

Our financial plan reflects this path and was modeled to fund a secure and sustainable capital improvement program—doing the projects that keep our system in good order.

There have been some unsettled days to get us here. We had to raise rates significantly in 2010 – 2013 to counter the many, many years of no rate increases. These funds were vital to help fund the vast and needed construction projects that had been offset for far too long as well as an overreliance on new connection charges and not rate revenue.

EID’s system is very large, geographically and hydraulically complex, and requires regular rehabilitation and construction to keep it in top shape.

Recently, the board voted to rescind 2018’s modest rate adjustments—the adjustments that were approved after the Proposition 218 process that saw a less than two percent customer protest rate against the proposed 2016 – 2020 rate schedule.

Given the cancelled rate adjustments, we may have to defer needed projects until later. And yes, rescinding those modest rate increases will likely require us to borrow more money than we had planned during our next bond issuance in 2020, adding to our debt. But this debt will be necessary to rebuild our decaying infrastructure.

Now, proposed state legislation might add to EID’s burdens—burdens we do not want and have actively worked to head off.

In particular Senate Bill No. 606 and Assembly Bill No. 1668 are poised to go into law and the results for EID and its customers would be potentially significant and long-lasting.

The bills are concerned with not only onerous reporting requirements to the state, but more alarming, the requirement of limiting indoor water usage to 55 gallons per person per day.

EID already reports to the State Water Resources Control Board monthly for water usage.

Using the February reported numbers for 2016 and 2017, it is estimated the indoor usage for EID’s customers to be between 69 and 71 gallons per person per day. If the district were required to impose the 55 gallons per person per day limit on our customers, it would result in at least a 20 percent reduction in indoor water consumption, with the estimated loss in water revenues being over $1 million and the corresponding loss in wastewater revenues being over $500,000.

We would need to recoup those losses because most of the costs to provide safe and reliable water and wastewater services are fixed costs.

To do that through rate increases would mean an almost 8 percent increase in the water consumption charge and a $1.00 per cubic foot increase in the wastewater commodity charge.

These restrictions would also reduce the volume of wastewater to treat for our recycled water program use. This reduction would actually increase the need to pump more water out of the American River to augment the recycled water outdoor demands in the summer months.

The legislation proposes an initial target of 55 gallons per person per day, but the bills provide for further reductions by 2025 and 2030, resulting in further rate increases to cover revenue losses.

EID firmly stands against the proposed legislation, along with more than a hundred other water purveyors statewide. We do not believe the one-size-fits all approach the legislation advocates is a good answer to a complex problem that districts like EID solve every year in continuous planning for times of drought and for times of plenty.

EID’s mission remains the same: to provide high quality water, wastewater treatment, recycled water, hydropower generation, and recreation services in an environmentally and fiscally responsible manner.

As needed rates are rescinded and harmful legislation is proposed, we are caught in the middle trying to solve many problems with fewer and fewer tools.

I strongly believe the best decisions are carried out with full transparency to the consequences a cancelled rate adjustment or blunt-edged piece of legislation can create.

EID’s staff will continue to make the best fiscal and operational decisions possible to maintain our community infrastructure now and for the generations to come.

Every man and woman at EID remains committed to finding a sustainable path forward to do the vital work of the district for the more than 110,000 people we serve. This will never change.

Message from the EID GM: Challenges ahead

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EID awarded nearly $2 million in grants to reduce fire danger

By Jesse Saich, El Dorado Irrigation District

The El Dorado Irrigation District was recently awarded three significant grants to help manage vegetation and protect against wildfire at some of its core water and hydroelectric facilities most at risk for wildfire. Cal Fire granted EID nearly $2 million to implement necessary fuels reduction projects to protect three EID facilities: Camp 5/Flume 46 ($280,500), Sly Park ($403,425), and Weber Reservoir ($1,279,080).

“Reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire at these facilities is critical to the protection of EID’s vital infrastructure that provides water to the residents EID serves,” said EID Operations Director Dan Corcoran. “At the same time, these projects are aimed at protecting watershed health to maintain water quality and quantity while also providing for a multitude of other environmental and recreational resources.”

In 2014, the King Fire scorched nearly 100,000 acres includes areas inside and adjacent to EID’s Camp 5 complex where dead and downed woody material remains a significant fire hazard near critical infrastructure. The King Fire cost taxpayers an estimated $5 million each day to fight and suppress. The fire required more than 4,000 fire fighters and an estimated 450,000 gallons of fire retardant. According to a L.A. Times article in 2015, total suppression costs exceeded $100 million making it one of the most expensive California wildfires on record.

These costs do not include any restoration efforts, which now are costing public and private timberland managers along with many other land owners, including water purveyors, millions of dollars annually. Responding to those events, EID has worked with its public and private watershed partners to invest improving forest health and fuels management using a combination of local, state, and federal funds. Although EID maintains one of the longest running vegetation management plans with Cal Fire at its Sly Park Recreation Area, similar efforts are needed elsewhere throughout EID’s service area. These three projects expand on new areas within Sly Park, the largest of EID’s water supply reservoirs and backbone of the western county’s water supply.

The Camp 5/Flume 46 Vegetation Management Project grant monies will fund needed fuels reduction and vegetation management treatments within 74 acres of EID-owned parcels at Camp 5 and Flume 46 along the El Dorado Canal. The Camp 5 complex is EID’s El Dorado Hydroelectric Project (FERC Project No.184) maintenance facility situated along the north side of Highway 50 just east of Pollock Pines. Camp 5 is surrounded by residential neighborhoods with a number of private homes immediately adjacent to the facilities. Flume 46 is a three-quarter-mile-long wooden flume susceptible to wildfire and is a key segment of the open water El Dorado Canal system, particularly during the high drinking water demand and fire season.

The Sly Park Vegetation Management Project will reduce vegetation in a fuel reduction zone of 118.5 acres along the perimeter of Jenkinson Lake and 75 feet wide along both banks of the three primary tributaries in Sly Park Recreation Area in Pollock Pines. Sly Park serves as a primary source of water for western El Dorado County, including the communities of Placerville, El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park. Work will be concentrated around previously unaddressed areas of Jenkinson Lake and protect more than 3,000 homes in the adjacent communities of Pollock Pines and Fresh Pond while also protecting critical EID water conveyance infrastructure from wildfire threat.

The Weber Lake Vegetation Management Project will reduce hazardous fuel vegetation along the north side of Weber Reservoir, a key component to the water supply portfolio for the El Dorado Hills area. Fuels reduction around the reservoir is designed to mitigate the wildfire threat to the adjacent communities of Camino and Pleasant Valley and nearby communities of Pollock Pines and Placerville, while also maintaining the quality of water entering into and through the reservoir for release and rediversion at Folsom Reservoir to serve EID’s customers in the El Dorado Hills area. The Weber project will, in total, treat 377.5 acres of land surrounding the reservoir.

“This partnership with Cal Fire and other key watershed stakeholders will help protect critical water infrastructure and maintain EID’s water quality while also helping to maintain a fire resilient landscape to guard against the potential for catastrophic wildfire that we see far too often,” said Corcoran.

“We want to learn from the unfortunate lessons of others affected by catastrophic wildfire and work with our partners throughout the South Fork American and Upper Cosumnes watersheds to protect our critical infrastructure and water quality while also doing our part to help protect our community.”

EID provides the primary source of drinking water to much of western El Dorado County and Sly Park and the El Dorado Canal are the primary water conveyance systems used to transport water for storage and delivery throughout its service area.

EID awarded nearly $2 million in grants to reduce fire danger

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EID rate lawsuit: The historic makings of the county’s biggest water system

Note: This is part two of a two-part article regarding a pending lawsuit against the El Dorado Irrigation District over water rates. Part one was an update on the lawsuit filed against the district as detailed previously in an article published March 2 “EID sued over water rates.” This article describes the history of EID’s water delivery system and the role that farmers and ranchers have played in the development of water resources in the county.

We all take water for granted but if not for the Gold Rush and later the development of agriculture in El Dorado County, there probably would be no water agencies or water would be vastly more expensive than it is.

Digging miles of ditches and putting in flumes that traversed difficult terrain was prompted by the need for a reliable water supply. Two factors stimulating that need were the weather, which can be unpredictable, and the discovery of gold. Mining, especially hydraulic mining, relied on a steady supply of water.

The first ditch was probably the one built by John Marshall to provide power to the new sawmill in Coloma. Then in 1850-51 the Union Mine Flume was dug. A three-mile long ditch, it carried water from the South Fork of the American River in Coloma to Union (Lotus).

Later other ditches were dug that supplied mining camps east and south of Folsom as well as the rapidly developing vineyards and ranches north of Highway 50. One canal system alone, called the Crawford Ditch, contained 350 miles of ditches and 450 miles of laterals according to the publication, “Historic Mining Ditches of El Dorado County, Calif.”

As mining began to decline in the 1880s after hydraulicking was outlawed and placer and hard rock mining began to peter out, agriculture competed with mining for water from the ditches.

By the early 20th century thousands of acres of crops were in production in the county fed by the mining ditches. But another threat arose when outside utility interests purchased the ditch systems with plans to cut off agriculture and divert the water to a new powerhouse to be built in the South Fork American River canyon below Pollock Pines.

In response, the farmers and ranchers took the fight to the state Railroad Commission, the predecessor to today’s California Public Utilities Commission. They won and the result was the utility company negotiated a contract, the 1919 Agreement, that granted ag and the City of Placerville an annual supply of 15,080 acre-feet of water.

EID formed

At the same time the area’s farmers and ranchers understood that additional supplies of water were needed. In 1925 they formed the El Dorado Irrigation District.

During this time EID’s ag customers primarily took delivery of water from open, earthen ditches. It was only later that EID converted most of its ag customers from raw-water ditch deliveries to treated water from a piped system to avoid having to create a duel system — one for residential customers and another for ag customers.

The end of the ditch system expanded EID’s water supplies for non-ag uses as well because a piped system is more efficient and conserves water. It also allowed EID to move its ditch water rights to Folsom Reservoir which expanded Folsom supplies to El Dorado Hills by about 50 percent. Without those changes ElD could have lost 4,500 acre-feet of water rights and El Dorado Hills wouldn’t have had enough water to develop.

In the years that followed, EID acquired the 2,000 acre-foot Weber Reservoir and two old ditch systems — one in south county and the other in the Mosquito area. They also envisioned a major new reservoir in Sly Park but found it too expensive to fund.

Fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation came along and built Sly Park Reservoir as part of the Central Valley Project along with a distribution system. But with the building of Sly Park came a water supply contract with the Bureau in which EID guaranteed that five-sixths of Sly Park’s 41,000 acre-feet would be dedicated to agricultural use.

According to Merv de Haas, who worked for the bureau for 27 years and later was the general manager for the county water agency, “The Bureau of Reclamation is not authorized to do a project for domestic or municipal use. You can only serve that kind of water out of an irrigation project as long as it doesn’t adversely impact the purpose of the project for irrigation. That’s the way the law was written.

“The Bureau of Reclamation built the distribution system in the late 1950s and allocated cost based on water use with 12.5 percent for municipal/industrial use and 87.5 percent for irrigation use. There’s no way you could afford to build a duel system. It was decided that ag doesn’t need treated water and so we won’t charge them for using it and put it all in one system. It makes it easier to control the system and spread it further.

“Ag’s contribution is acknowledged in the cost of service study and so they don’t charge for treatment costs. But treatment costs have gone up as the demand for purity kept going up. But it is ag that is basically what carried the building of the project and the distribution system,” he said.

The contract with the bureau was made moot when EID purchased Sly Park in 2003.

As time has gone by, EID has expanded its services to include large swaths of the county. De Haas said at one point EID even took over a water and sewer company in El Dorado Hills because it couldn’t afford to stay in business. EID also took over providing water elsewhere in the county even though it was expensive to do so with homes and communities so spread out.

“It’s a billion dollar system and requires a lot of money to maintain it,” said de Haas. “One of the reasons EID has so much debt now is because they put off replacing and fixing equipment because they didn’t want to raise rates.”

Currently EID has the water rights to 65,000 acre-feet with 40,000 of that due to the efforts of the ag community. Of that amount, ag uses from 21,000 to 35,000 acre-feet of water yearly and contributes 20 percent of water sales.

Rate lawsuit

Why the history of water development in the county matters is because EID is currently the subject of a lawsuit launched by El Dorado Hills resident Darwin Throne who accuses the district of charging residential customers more for water than it costs to produce.

In particular, the lawsuit maintains that by selling water to ag customers at a rate lower than that charged to residential customers, ag customers are being subsidized by residential customers.

Members of the ag community disagree, saying that the history of EID shows that the water agency would not exist without their leadership and it’s not just ag that receives a break, schools, golf courses and other public facilities get a price break as well.

More importantly, ag uses treated water not because it needs it but because it saves EID the cost of having to build and maintain a duel system which would raise rates for everyone. EID also brings in a substantial amount of non-rate revenue from property taxes, hydroelectric generation, recreation and other sources, so all EID customers are being subsidized to some degree.

Those in the ag community also stress the many benefits of having such a strong agricultural presence in the county. One benefit is how ag-related organizations provide employment and learning opportunities for local youths.

Ag is also an income generator for the county. Using the multiplier effect, farmers say Apple Hill and the wineries generate $500 million for the county every year. That’s money spent in the local community with the tax dollars paying for government services.

It’s also ag that provides much of the fresh vegetables and fruits sold at local farmers markets and contributes to the open space and natural beauty that makes El Dorado County such an attractive place to live.

Without the special rates for water, these same farmers say almost all of the local farms would go away with the land likely sold for rooftops.

De Haas and others from the ag community maintain that it’s ag that has protected this area’s water rights, thus ensuring that present and future residents have the water they need regardless if it’s for domestic, industrial or agricultural use.

EID rate lawsuit: The historic makings of the county’s biggest water system

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EID rate lawsuit signals trouble on the horizon

By Dawn Hodson
Note: This is part one of a two-part article regarding a pending lawsuit against the El Dorado Irrigation District over water rates. Part one is an update on the lawsuit filed against the district as detailed previously in an article published March 2, “EID sued over water rates.” Part two describes the history of EID’s water delivery system and the role that farmers and ranchers have played in the development of water resources in the county.

A pending lawsuit against the El Dorado Irrigation District could portend big trouble for agriculture in this county if it is successful.

The class-action lawsuit (Throne v. El Dorado Irrigation District) was brought by El Dorado Hills resident Darwin Throne and filed in late 2017.

The case is now pending in Department 4 (South Lake Tahoe) of the El Dorado County Superior Court.

The lawsuit alleges the water district is in violation of Prop. 218 because it charges more than what it costs to provide water service and because the charges are more than the proportional cost of the service per parcel.

In particular, the lawsuit notes that single family residences and small farms are charged the same on a bimonthly basis for up to 4,500 cubic feet (cf) of water. Small farms pay .0194 cents less per cf than single family residences for water use above 4,500 cf. For agricultural irrigation when there is no residence on the property, the cost is a flat .00122 cents per cf.

The lawsuit alleges that the difference in charges is not cost-based but instead designed to help the agriculture industry; that it costs the district the same amount to deliver water to residential, small farm and agricultural customers; and that residential customers are illegally subsidizing small farm and agricultural users.

The lawsuit also accuses EID of using a cost-of-service study that is six years old as the foundation for its fees and charges.

Based on those claims, the lawsuit sought to force EID to equalize its agricultural and residential rates, declare its current rates to be unlawful and to award damages amounting to three years of allegedly excessive charges to its customers.

Those claims were rejected by EID.

Request for dismissal

In June, a temporary judge in Department 4 heard a request by EID to dismiss the case based on two main arguments.

The first was that for more than 100 years it has been agriculture that has driven the funding, acquisition and development of EID’s water supplies and facilities including Project 184, Sly Park Reservoir and Weber Reservoir.

Further, those ag (agricultural) users didn’t require treated water nor the same level of service that is required by residential customers since they used water straight out of the ditch.

Later, EID piped its ditch system and began treating its water to serve the growing number of residential customers. The treated water also went to its ag customers but only so EID wouldn’t have to maintain and operate a duel water system — one for ag customers and a different one for residential customers.

EID argued that those facts were taken into account in its last cost of service study when it gave ag customers a break on water usage above 4,500 cubic feet.

EID also maintained that it receives nearly $20 million per year of non-rate revenue from property taxes, hydropower sales, recreation and other sources. The district argued that when those non-rate revenues are taken into account, none of the rates that EID charges exceed the actual cost of providing water and in fact all its users are being subsidized by these other sources of revenue. For example, in 2012 the district’s budget was $37.4 million. Of this amount, water sales were $19.7 million and non-rate revenues were $17.7 million. So water sales only made up two-thirds of the cost of delivering the water.

The judge subsequently dismissed two of the three claims made in the lawsuit, ruling that the remaining claim could still provide relief if the lawsuit is successful. The judge also ruled that EID’s arguments were premature but would be considered at the trial.

Both Throne and EID were contacted previously about the lawsuit but declined to comment. Throne’s legal firm also did not respond to multiple phone inquiries.

However, EID did say it does cost-of-service studies every 10 years and will be doing another in 2019 with its implementation probably taking place in 2020.

The case is now set for trial in January.

EID rate lawsuit signals trouble on the horizon

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