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Making history: Water district election sets precedent with first female-majority board in 100 years

By Liz Kellar | Staff Writer
Water from the Bear River flows through a stretch of Nevada County slated to be submerged due to the proposed Centennial Dam. Nevada Irrigation District’s new board members could decide the fate of project.
Elias Funez

This November, some of the most closely watched races in Nevada County revolved around the future of water, the Nevada Irrigation District and its hotly contested Centennial reservoir project.

The race for two open seats could be seen as a vote not for the candidates themselves but for — or against — the dam. In the end, no clear mandate emerged after the November election. Incumbent Scott Miller lost to dam opponent Karen Hull in Division 3, but her counterpart in the Division 5 race, John Norton, lost to Rich Johansen.

But the new 3-2 split in the district board membership swung toward fiscal conservatism and away from approving the dam for the first time. And the three board members who are skeptical of the need for the reservoir — Hull, Laura Peters and Ricki Heck — also form the first female majority on the board since its inception 100 years ago.

“Nancy Weber was the first woman ever elected (to the NID board), I was the second,” Heck said. “This is really historic.”

Having two organic farmers on the board also is important, she said, adding, “I think we have good energy, smart people, good people.”

Nevada Irrigation District’s central office, at 1036 W. Main St. in Grass Valley.
Elias Funez

So where does the NID board go from here?

Hull sees hiring a new general manager, after the departure this summer of Rem Scherzinger, as a top priority.

“We need a general manager who can be a change agent, who can really lead the district through some absolutely pivotal years in its existence,” she said. “The leader we need is someone who can think with innovative approaches, in a partnership way … Someone who wants to engage not just the board in discussions, but call upon the community’s expertise in a collaborative, problem-solving and truly transparent way.”

Hull has serious concerns about the district’s financial health.

During her campaign, Hull said she found the constituents’ main issue was rates.

“People perceive rates are going through the roof and they don’t understand the ongoing rate increase,” she said. “The Ag community tells me if we do not get a handle on the rate increases on the raw water side, we will put (them) out of business. People are feeling the pressure on their pocketbook.”

In Hull’s view, continuing rate increases is not an acceptable fall-back position — but should only take place after careful analysis.

“We have to look at how we manage expenses,” she said, pointing to “all kinds of red flags” in the district’s five-year budget projection. ”I have to understand the budget so I can provide leadership.”

Hull also wants to focus on building a positive relationship in the community on a foundation of “transparency, collaboration and open information sharing” in order to build trust.

“We need to be working together, not (working) in a silo and then springing stuff on people,” she said.


Rich Johansen has a different perspective on the need for the Centennial reservoir. But he shares a concerns with Hull and Heck.

“NID’s primary mission is to deliver water at a reasonable price and to take care of the watershed and the environment, and that has’t changed,” he said.

The board, Johansen said, has three main functions.

“One is fiduciary responsibility and the second is governance,” he said. “The third one is the strategic vision.”

Johansen firmly believes that once the water supply and demand analyses are completed, it will be apparent the district has a shortage it needs to address. Conservation is one component of that, but he continues to believe storage must be increased.

And while he is not certain the district can afford to build the Centennial reservoir, he also maintains that NID needs to protect against the possibility of another agency building its own dam.

“We have the (water rights) application in and as long as we do our due diligence to secure the water rights, it’s ours,” he said. “But if we drop the ball, anyone else can come in. We have to store it and use it to retain those rights. It’s as simple as that.”

Of utmost importance, Johansen said, is a “functional board that respects each other and that listens, that tries to respect each others’ positions. Once we achieve that, then we can tackle the other stuff. We’re all here for the betterment of the district.”

Water from the Bear River pools along an 8-mile stretch that would be inundated with water from the proposed Centennial Dam.
Elias Funez

River advocates who have long opposed the Centennial Reservoir project say they feel hopeful about the new composition of the board.

“The resources they are in charge of stewarding are essential to the community,” said South Yuba River Citizens League Executive Director Melinda Booth. “Having an informed and engaged board and a stellar staff is important.”

SYRCL Policy Manager Ashley Overhouse noted Centennial was an issue that came up during the election, with “quite a bit of dialogue” on the merits of the project.

“We’re looking forward to fleshing out what was said with the new board and new staff,” she said. “There will be new opportunities for more information sharing and trust building, which I think are important.”

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

Karen Hull is sworn in as a new Nevada Irrigation District board member.
Submitted photo
Rich Johansen is sworn in as a new Nevada Irrigation District board member.
Submitted photo

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