Candidates for Nevada Irrigation District field questions at forum (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com
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Candidates for Nevada Irrigation District field questions at forum (VIDEO)

Rebecca O’Neil
Staff Writer

Candidates for the Nevada Irrigation District Division 3 and 5 races answered questions surrounding water management, fiscal responsibility and government transparency during a live-streamed, media-sponsored forum.

The four candidates seated and socially distanced on stage during Monday’s forum reckoned with what some consider the district’s most pressing concern — water security amidst climate change.

Karen Hull and incumbent W. Scott Miller are running for Division 3. Rich Johansen and John Norton are seeking the Division 5 seat. Incumbent Nick Wilcox isn’t running for reelection.

The forum was sponsored by leaders in Gold Country’s main media outlets, including YubaNet founder and editor Pascale Fusshoeller, KNCO’s Paul Haas, KVMR’s Paul Emery, Nevada County Media’s Cole Pettit and Brian Hamilton of The Union.

DIVISION 3

Division 3 challenger Karen Hull began the conversation by highlighting NID’s current financial situation and the need to consider alternative solutions to raising customer rates.

Hull identified NID as a $90 million business with no competition.

“There’s nowhere else for us to get our water,” Hull said. “They have a special obligation to steward what they receive from ratepayers.”

Hull said the board she wants to join needs to optimize the use of its limited resources to safeguard ratepayers’ interests.

“We must control wasteful spending,” Hull said.

Hull said her experience heading human resources for UC Davis, a campus of 16,000, and balancing its $33 million budget taught her that the best leaders listen.

“It seems like there’s a disconnect between board and district members of the community,” Hull said. “This gap could be remedied by explaining why and how (priorities are) set.”

Hull said NID needs to take the time to explain to its constituents how environmentally vulnerable it is, and incorporate community concerns over rising rate increases into a collective solution.

Hull’s competition is 20-year incumbent W. Scott Miller.

Miller attributed financial strains within the district to the unprecedented economic fallout of the pandemic.

“COVID hit us hard, but our $97 million in reserves kept the district strong,” Miller said. “Next year we’re back in the black, and returning $3 million to reserves.”

Despite fluxing finances, Miller defended his commitment to the construction of the Centennial Dam between the Rollins and Combie reservoirs. Candidates did not agree on construction costs.

Miller said hydroelectric energy will help recoup some of the construction costs.

“Hydro is amazing, powerful and lucrative,” Miller said. “However, it is our consumptive water rights — keeping our water and using it — that keeps it from going to LA.”

Miller said he has been working on the Centennial Reservoir project for the last six years and hopes to see its conclusion, which would help fortify rights and reserves for future generations.

“I graduated high school in 1975, so I’m a little sensitive to drought,” Miller said, adding, “I don’t have to convince anyone about climate change. We need to be agile and adapt to it for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake.”

DIVISION 5

Former Nevada County Planning Commissioner Rich Johansen and Lake Wildwood resident John Norton are vying for representation of Division 5, in which incumbent Nick Wilcox is not seeking reelection.

Johansen is a local, organic farmer. His family has been here for four generations.

“My great-grandfather came here in 1854,” Johansen said. “I know what really drives Nevada County is the water and this outstanding irrigation district.”

Johansen said water storage is one of the only clear ways to ensure the region has ample reserves given the imminent effects of climate change on the region’s watershed.

“We’re running out of water a lot faster than people think,” Johansen said. “We’re losing a reservoir in the reduction of snow pack that’s twice the size of Rollins.”

Johansen said the dam and reservoir are expensive to create and maintain, but the realities of atmospheric rivers — localized, heavy rainfall — demand real community investment.

Norton said his primary concern is addressing NID’s neglected and aging infrastructure, controlling rate increases and restoring NID’s fiscal strength and reserves.

Norton said he looked over reports that examine the region’s hydrology over the next 50 years.

“The snowpack will become less, the rain will become more and the water stays the same,” he said.

Norton said the district must prioritize water retention, but ought to consider alternatives to the Centennial project, including meadow restoration, forest thinning practices and sediment removal from existing reservoirs.

Johansen countered by revealing the high cost and low return of sediment removal practices and deferring to his experience with a 4-acre reservoir on his property, which has multiple benefits including sustaining a local ecosystem.

“Sedimentation is very expensive and doesn’t add real water to the system,” Johansen said.

Norton said he would pursue multifaceted solutions to the issues NID faces, solutions that incorporate community needs and health, local agriculture and the forest service.

Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at roneil@theunion.com.


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