Thursday, March 8, 2012
Where holes gaped on the floor of the Salinas River last summer, a cement block now makes the riverbed look like a cobblestone street.
Just upstream, the Salinas River Diversion Facility, commonly know as the rubber dam, is about to enter its third season. Officials at the Monterey County Water Resources Agency are hopeful the scour damage that tore apart the river bottom is history, and that they can find a way to pay almost $1.8 million in repair-related costs.
They’ve already paid nearly $1.5 million out of an annual $1.4 million operations and maintenance budget, but need to replenish their coffers before the dam’s season begins April 1.
“We’re trying to shuffle money around,” says Brent Buche, assistant general manager for MCWRA. “[Otherwise] we don’t have money to operate because we spent it all on construction.”
Paying for the work revives a debate about who benefits from the dam, which delivered 3,400 acre-feet of irrigation water last year as part of an effort to halt seawater intrusion in the Salinas Valley.
Ocean Mist Farms comprises about half the 12,000 acres in Zone 2B, the region in Castroville that foots the $66.23-per-acre-foot dam operating bill. “As far as using our delivery charges [to pay for emergency repairs], we are absolutely 100 percent opposed to that,” said Dale Huss, Ocean Mists’s vice president of artichoke production, at a Feb. 27 MCWRA board meeting.
Instead, he’d like to share the cost with Salinas Valley property owners who approved a 1997 ballot measure to pay $5.25-$6.30 per acre to finance the $14 million rubber dam.
But the ratepayer base that covered capital costs is smaller than the one voters approved. In 2002, Gonzales-area growers prevailed in a lawsuit against the county, arguing the project would not help irrigate their land, so they shouldn’t have to help foot the bill.
Widening the rate base today seems improbable. “You can’t just go ahead and increase the rates without going out and having another vote,” County Supervisor Lou Calcagno says. “I don’t think the ratepayers are going to sit still for it.”
Calcagno, like the MCWRA board, hopes liability claims or lawsuits bring in most of the $1.1 million Don Chapin Company charged for paving over the river bottom.
MCWRA budgeted $80,000 for legal counsel to deal with the issue. The agency’s contract attorneys hired a third-party investigator who’s expected to produce a report by the end of this month, detailing which engineers or builders might be liable for shoddy work.
Meanwhile, Chapin has threatened to sue over $100,000 it claims the county still owes on the repair work, which exceeded an original estimate by about $500,000.
The board unanimously approved Chapin’s final bill Feb. 27, but delayed action on the financing plan because of potential conflicts of interest. Board members Mike Scattini and David Hart farm in North County, and Claude Hoover has a real estate client there – potentially leaving the 8-member board without a quorum. “I suspect we will not end up having this huge wave of conflicts,” says Deputy County Counsel Patrick McGreal.
Growers are hopeful the board can move quickly. Coming off a dry year, they’ll need every drop of river water available. The Nacimiento Reservoir, which feeds the Salinas River, was full when the operational season began last April 1; by press time, it was only at 69 percent capacity.