Future of Centennial Dam at center of Nevada Irrigation District race | TheUnion.com

Future of Centennial Dam at center of Nevada Irrigation District race

Certainly the Nevada Irrigation District's board has seen some contested elections around some controversial issues.

But the Centennial Dam, and whether the district needs to continue with the multimillion-dollar reservoir project, is arguably the most contentious issue the district has faced in decades. And the four candidates for two of the three open seats on the board have made their stance on Centennial part of their campaign platforms.

Ricki Heck is running unopposed for the Division I seat being vacated by Nancy Weber, who has served since first being elected in 1998.

Heck has expressed concerns with the Centennial project, writing a number of op-eds in The Union, often in relation to district expenditures in acquiring property in the Bear River canyon.

In Division IV (Placer County), incumbent Will Morebeck is facing challenger Laura Peters. Morebeck, the current president of the water district board, has not specifically advocated for the dam but has stressed the need to provide a high-quality local water supply. In Peters' view, the district still needs to go through proper planning for the reservoir. Even before the Raw Water Master Plan is updated, she said, the district should complete a strategic plan.

But only one race will be decided by Nevada County voters come Nov. 6.

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Bruce Herring and Chris Bierwagen are contending for the Division II seat being vacated by John Drew, who has served on the board representing the area including Alta Sierra and Chicago Park since 2002.

Chris Bierwagen

Bierwagen, a fourth-generation farmer, is endorsed by the board member he seeks to replace. He has served as president of the Nevada County Farm Bureau and on the board of Nevada County Grown board of directors, as well as on the water district's Water Rates Study Advisory Committee and Weed Abatement Study Committee.

Bierwagen said running for Drew's seat on the water district felt like a natural step, given his family history.

"It's a legacy," he said, adding his grandfather was instrumental in getting water to Chicago Park. And his father, Ernie, served on the board for many years.

"I'm used to hearing the challenges of keeping water flowing in California," Bierwagen said. "I'm passionate about it, I know what's going on. The whole issue of water is of huge interest."

Bierwagen agrees the dam is the hot-button issue, but says the bigger issue is that the district's customers depend on stored water — the snowpack and the reservoirs. He said the controversy over the need for water should be expanded statewide.

"It's not just a local issue, it's a state issue," he said. "There is an abundance in the north and a shortage in the south."

And for that reason, Bierwagen said, some out-of-district water sales could be a good idea from a business perspective.

"It would improve our financial position," he said. "The district has kept rates some of the lowest in the state — the challenge is to keep up with expenses."

Bierwagen said he believed the current board of directors had performed a cost-benefit analysis before proceeding with the Centennial project.

"I trust the board thought that through, as to (whether) it was going to pay for itself or not," he said. "And if we actually need water. I think we will."

For one, Bierwagen said, climate change would mandate more water storage — although, he said, "I think the jury is out on that issue."

And, he said, at its current water usage, the water district has said it cannot provide any new water hook-ups.

He agreed the Raw Water Master Plan update is necessary.

"It should happen first — and it will, given the time it will take to build the dam," he said.

Bierwagen was dismissive of dam opponents' claims about preserving the Bear River.

"It has nine dams and diversions already," he said, "It is not a wild river."

Bierwagen says he's open to the findings from the Raw Water Master Plan update, but does not see any viable alternatives.

"I'm not saying we have to build the dam … But generally, I'm in favor," he said. "If the (update) says we don't need it, that would be a huge factor."

The district works hard to keep water in reserve for drought years, Bierwagen said, and while open to new ideas, he thinks most will prove to be expensive and not that productive.

Bierwagen pointed to the Yuba-Bear River Power Project completed in the 1960s that, he said, saved the district.

"It greatly expanded our water availability," he said.

"The idea of borrowing that much money scares people — but what is it relative to?" Bierwagen said. "Certainly we need to determine if there is enough benefit, and how it will be paid for."

The community needs to be able to have a conversation about the issues it disagrees on, without anger and defensiveness, he said. And, he added, the district needs to better sell the need for the dam, with a bigger public relations program, something more than just inviting people to come to meetings.

"I've been cast as the good ol' boy, as the status quo," Bierwagen said. "That is part of the truth. (But) the district has provided water for 97 years, at a very low rate. We wouldn't have farms here, without that water. That's my defense. We use a tremendous amount of water to grow food. That's the driving force for me."

Bruce Herring

Herring has lived in Nevada County since 1988. He retired in 2014 from Bitney Prep High School, the last four years as principal. A former whitewater rafting guide, he has served on the board of South Yuba River Citizens League and was co-owner of Wolf Creek Wilderness.

Herring highlights fiscal responsibility, sound communication and a healthy watershed as the cornerstones of his campaign.

He says he has been involved in water issues for 40 years and believes there are many myths and misconceptions about dams.

"In the 20th century, we thought that if we needed to augment our water supply, we should dam rivers," he said. "But that may or may not be the answer here. We haven't proven there is a water supply problem. We have an abundance of water."

Herring acknowledges water supply issues are complex, but says he is not convinced Nevada County has a long-term supply problem. And if it does, he said, he is not sure a dam is the right solution.

The Centennial project is what first brought Herring to district board meetings, starting last spring. He decided to run for Drew's seat because, he said, "The current board is about the status quo and is ill-equipped to meet challenges in a comprehensive manner."

The dam proposal is just a symptom of a larger problem with the board, Herring said.

"They are secretive, and they're pretty loose with public money," he said. "Their rationale for the dam, and their cost estimates, have changed three times in three years. They are not being very honest with the public."

Herring said he is looking to the hard data that will come from the Raw Water Master Plan update that, he said, will show the district's long-term needs, based on long-term demand, and whether it has an adequate supply of water as well as addressing climate change and the hydrology of the watershed.

"All of this data, this sound science, will generate a list of possible options," he said. "That's the goal. It's entirely possible the Centennial Dam will be one of them."

According to Herring, the district should explore what he calls a "whole slew of viable alternatives" that include sediment removal, conservation, upper-watershed enhancement, rainwater catchment, forest thinning and conjunctive groundwater projects.

"NID has never managed the watershed as a whole," he said. "We need to take a look at that, a healthy watershed from top to bottom."

Herring said the Raw Water Master Plan update should have been done before the Centennial project began.

"I've said it all along, the board has put the cart before the horse," he said.

And, he said, the $13 million already spent has exacerbated the district's financial woes caused by mismanagement.

"They have increased rates annually by 6 percent for six years, and they're about to enact another increase, a five-year, 8 percent annual increase," Herring said. "This is an egregious example of fiscal mismanagement. They've seen this coming for two decades."

The problem is, Herring said, the district has purposely kept the cost of water lower than the cost of delivery. Its revenue does not cover the water operations, which has created a shortfall of $8 million a year that has been covered by hydroelectric sales and reserves.

"But the reserve account is dwindling … This is not how you manage the people's money," he said.

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

Issues at a glance

Why is this race so important? Why should voters care?

Bierwagen: This race is very important because we are entering changing times where our water supply is concerned. Climate variations, drought and proposed government takings are all threatening our current water supply.

Herring: NID is a storied institution and does a good job of delivering water and producing hydro-electric power. I have met many of the senior staff and have a great deal of confidence in them and their teams. But I have no confidence in the current board. They continue to operate in a provincial and secretive manner. They have also been poor stewards of the public funds at their disposal. The most egregious example of this is the pending rate hike, on top of five straight years of 6 percent increases. Watching the bottom line like a hawk is one of the principal duties of any board. They should have seen this coming.

This race represents a turning point for NID. Voters are faced with a clear choice. By his own admission, my opponent represents the status quo. I represent a fresh look and a more comprehensive vision for the future. The 21st century presents unique challenges to water managers. I believe NID can become a regional leader in watershed management, and pave the way for others to follow in meeting these challenges.

How important is the Raw Water Master Plan update and how can the process be safeguarded?

Bierwagen: The Raw Water Master Plan update is very important because it will quantify many important factors and affirm or negate many already in place. The process is already safeguarded by the fact that a third party organization will be facilitating the process.

Herring: It is extremely important and I support it wholeheartedly. However, without question the process should have been initiated prior to announcing such a colossal public works project as Centennial. The base cost of Centennial is greater than NID’s combined capital assets. These include a dozen reservoirs, a handful of power plants and water treatment plants, and hundreds of miles of canals and pipelines. Amazingly, the current board chose not to undergo a proper planning process to assess the future supply, the future demand, the hydrology, and possible climate impacts. It is therefore of paramount importance that the RWMP go forward in a deliberate, open, and thoughtful manner. It is important that sound data be collected that is specific to our watershed and our needs. As a board member I would do everything in my power to make that a reality.

What is your take on the resolution just passed by the board to limit its expenditures on the Centennial project to $2 million a year?

Bierwagen: The best news here is that the board did not cave to the demands of one special interest group. I support the continual and long term process of adding storage capacity to the system while completing the raw water master plan update.

Herring: First of all this resolution changes nothing in regard to spending on Centennial. The annual budget is approved one year at a time. However, it is common practice for each department head to provide the board with five year projections. I believe the current projection calls for $2 million per year to 2023. Second, the manner in which this resolution was presented raises more questions than it answers. It was not on the agenda. It was presented prior to board action on the original resolution without discussion. It was an amateurish performance by a veteran board. We can do better than this. We should also bridge the gap in mistrust between NID and the environmental community. As I mentioned earlier, NID is a vital public agency. The staff is filled with competent hard working people at all levels.

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