Candidates for Nevada Irrigation District talk water issues at forum
Three of the seats for Nevada Irrigation District’s board of directors are opening up in this election cycle.
And whoever is elected to those three positions could well change the direction of the board and seal the fate of the controversial Centennial Dam.
One seat, that of retiring director Nancy Weber, will be filled by Ricki Heck, who ran with no opposition. Another seat, in Placer County, will see incumbent Will Morebeck face challenger Laura Peters.
In Nevada County, Division 2 residents will choose between Bruce Herring and Chris Bierwagen to fill the seat of John Drew, who is not seeking re-election.
Herring has been an outspoken opponent of the Centennial project for more than a year. Bierwagen, a fourth-generation farmer whose family was instrumental in the water district’s governance, supports moving forward with the dam.
At a forum Thursday hosted by the Nevada County League of Women Voters, Herring and Bierwagen had a chance to articulate their views and answer questions posed both by the audience and a media panel.
Heck, who noted that she will be sworn in on the water district board in December, introduced herself but did not participate in the debate.
Herring told the audience he became well-versed in watersheds and dams as a whitewater rafting guide, and pointed to his experience balancing budgets as a principal at Bitney Springs High School. Herring cited fiscal responsibility, sound communication and a healthy watershed as the cornerstones of his campaign.
Bierwagen noted the impact the water district’s canals have had on production at his family farm, and said the board needs someone who represents agricultural production. He highlighted his work on several NID committees, including weed abatement and water rates, saying he sees the challenges and the complex decisions that need to be made.
Not all the questions from the audience revolved around Centennial Dam.
The very first question, in fact, asked what were the other key issues for the district, besides the dam.
“Maintaining our water supply is very important,” said Bierwagen, noting increasing demands from the federal government and the state.
Herring, meanwhile, hammered the irresponsibility of the current board in pushing a “significant” across-the-board water rate increase, arguing the need should have been foreseen. Similarly, he said a backlog of deferred maintenance also needs to be addressed.
Several questions dealt with the water district’s approach to vegetation management, which includes Roundup and aquatic herbicides that some in the community have decried as dangerous.
Both Herring and Bierwagen pointed to a testing study currently underway by the district as a good first step, and both men said it could be hard to replace such cheap and efficient herbicides.
Bierwagen said it was an economic decision, arguing that it has not been proven that Roundup is carcinogenic. Herring, disagreed, saying the water district needs to find a viable alternative as quickly and inexpensively as it can.
The need for a new reservoir and the potential cost formed the bulk of the questions.
Herring decried the $13 million spent so far on the Centennial project, saying money would have been better spent in maintaining the infrastructure and staving off a rate increase.
Bierwagen, however, said the dam had been in the works at that site since the 1920s and remains a benefit to the district.
There are no other viable alternatives to ensuring an adequate water supply down the line, Bierwagen said.
“I do support the dam because alternatives don’t produce very much water, and they are expensive,” he said.
“What we need to do is step back and ask the right questions,” Herring said.
If, as the district contends, climate change means less snowpack and more rain, the Raw Water Master Plan should look at whether the dam is the best solution, he said.
There are other alternatives that should also get a close look, Herring argued, including capturing rainwater.
Both candidates acknowledged that the Raw Water Master Plan, which will determine the district’s water needs, is at the very start of a lengthy update process.
“This should have happened years ago,” Herring said. “It’s a classic example of (putting) the cart before the horse.”
“It has become obvious (the Raw Water Master Plan) is necessary,” said Bierwagen.
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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