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John Volz: Murky waters at Nevada Irrigation District

I am the owner of Volz Bros. Automotive in Grass Valley. As a Grass Valley resident and business owner for 36 years, I have serious concerns about NID’s proposed Centennial Dam project.

When NID launched the project two years ago, I decided, as a responsible citizen and business owner, to educate myself about the merits of the project. I’d like to ask the public to consider the following comments.

I’ve since learned that there are enormously important, unanswered questions about the project, such as where the water it promises will come from and where it will go. But for the purposes of this letter, I’d like to focus specifically on NID’s transparency and accountability — or lack thereof — in conducting its Centennial-related business.



When the project began, NID management estimated a total cost at $160 million. Fast forward to now: a report presented at NID’s July 12 board meeting revealed “opinions of probable construction cost” — as high as $307 million. But this was for basic construction only; it does not include the new bridge that will need to be built to link Placer and Nevada counties at an estimated cost of $54 million, plus estimated costs for hydropower of another $50 million. These add up to a total project cost, based on NID’s own estimates, of over $400 million.

I encourage all residents of Nevada and Placer counties to educate themselves about the project, raise their voices and hold their district board members accountable for representing their best interests.

What’s more, this doesn’t reflect costs from financing, inflation and rising interest rates. With those factored in, says Otis Wollan, president of the American River Watershed Institute, the real cost of the project is more likely to be $1 to $1.2 billion! Bottom line: Nevada City resident and economist Gary Zimmerman, formerly with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, has shown that a $1 billion-plus dam could result in additional costs to ratepayers over 30 years of $1,300 per year, or over $110 per month! (Incidentally, 75 percent of the last 80 large dam projects around the world have experienced cost overruns at an average of 54 percent; such overruns could cause the cost of Centennial to rise even higher.)




From the beginning, NID has not been forthcoming about Centennial Dam project costs. As a relatively small example, it has already spent some $6 million on property acquisition at the proposed dam site and on reports, consultants and legal costs, yet has refused to answer questions about these expenditures. NID’s own study shows the district needs at 40,000 acre feet. I think it’s apparent that they intend to sell any remaining water, which they assured the public that they had no intention to do so.

Further, NID has tried to railroad other aspects of the project through without public awareness or input. At its Aug. 9, meeting, the NID Management cloaked “Water Storage Investment Program” resolution No. 2017-24 — which would allow NID management to request $12 million in funding for the project from the Association of California Water Agencies — as a “consent agenda” item (consent agenda items are defined as non-controversial or routine items that are discussed at every meeting. They can also be items that have been previously discussed at length on which there is group consensus). A $100 million funding request for a highly controversial project is hardly a consent agenda item. But at this meeting, NID management and some of its board members assured attendees — some of whom questioned this process — that this was just a routine step that allowed NID to “hold a place” in the process for the funding request. Really?

Responding to public outcry, NID now professes to advocate transparency. So, let’s talk about the meanings of accountability and transparency in this context. Accountability is the standard for public government whereby elected or appointed officials are accountable to constituents for their actions and decisions and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is required for transparency. Transparency means unrestricted access by constituents to information and decisions that affect them.

I’m not the first to raise questions about NID’s lack of transparency on the controversial Centennial Dam project. But I wanted my voice to be heard. I encourage all residents of Nevada and Placer counties to educate themselves about the project, raise their voices and hold their district board members accountable for representing their best interests.

It’s time to clear the waters with a board that will stand up and make courageous choices that serve constituents and the environment and provide prudent financial management at NID.

John Volz lives in Chicago Park.


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