Peter Van Zant: A new focus for Nevada Irrigation District
Peter Van Zant
Thank you to the dedicated men and women who keep the complex Nevada Irrigation District systems operating through summer heat and winter snow so we have water for our daily needs.
You may have heard that NID’s general manager has moved to the Truckee Donner Public Utility District and Assistant General Manager Greg Jones has been appointed interim general manager. While NID transitions to new leadership and adapts to the impacts of the COVID-19 emergency, it has the opportunity to thoroughly investigate the current fiscal health of the organization with a district-wide audit. The NID Board needs to know where they stand objectively in order to find the right new general manager.
For instance, Centennial Dam on the Bear River is still a designated project in NID’s current budget; to date over $14 million has been spent on the project overall and there is no plan for outside funding for the proposed project. Over $10 million of NID funds have been spent on property acquisitions alone. And while there is currently a hold on new property purchases, it could be lifted at anytime. The estimated billion dollar total cost for Centennial Dam is sure to be rising.
Rather than the Centennial boondoggle, NID needs to focus on the following critical issues. Nevada and Placer counties need NID to survive and thrive — especially in these difficult times.
NID needs to refocus in order to remain viable. Its reserves are perilously low and current water rates and tax income is inadequate to maintain current budgets, let alone take on new facilities from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). As part of efforts to regain a financial toe hold in 2019, NID implemented sensible budget cuts while simultaneously starting another round of water rate hikes — including a planned 46% rate increase in 2021, according to NID’s 2020 budget.
NID operates some of the oldest infrastructure in California and is acquiring more inadequately maintained infrastructure from PG&E. These include aging canal systems, siphons, treatment plants, and water transmission lines — many near the end of their engineered life spans. Examples include the newly-purchased South Yuba Canal, dams in the Yuba-Bear and Drum-Spaulding projects considered “High Hazard Dams” by California’s Division of Safety of Dams, the newly purchased Deer Creek facilities, the soon-to-be purchased Bear River Canal, and new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license requirements being implemented in the next year or so for the Yuba-Bear hydropower operations.
NID may be one catastrophic wildfire or atmospheric river away from a system failure, with reduced cash reserves to make emergency repairs.
We’re all navigating recent economic traumas caused by PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs, soon to begin again, and the sudden and ongoing impacts of COVID-19 closures. A financially sound NID is critical for our treasured local agriculture, also strained by uncertain markets.
NID has always played a key role in supporting fire safety by making sure water is available during fire events. Most of NID’s aging and sometimes wooden infrastructure is in the forested regions with high risk of catastrophic wildfire. NID should evaluate the fire vulnerability of these facilities and increase defensible space around power plants, power lines, and other structures. Unfortunately, NID is facing increased costs for insurance as well.
NID has begun addressing forest health for fire preparedness with the Scotts Flat thinning project, and now has the experience to dramatically expand that program. NID should be investing and partnering with local stakeholders to implement large scale forest health projects to protect their assets.
Water efficiency is also one of NID’s ongoing priorities that needs renewed focus. To quote the NID website: “Conservation and water use efficiency are important to preserving our precious water resources.” NID needs to step up its investment in water use efficiency to reduce water demand and contribute to water resilience in response to the disturbing impacts from climate change that our Sierra watersheds are facing. NID needs to invest in mitigating catastrophic wildfire, severe atmospheric rivers, an unpredictable snowpack, and increased sedimentation and erosion.
NID’s plan to build back reserves relies on potentially astronomical water rate increases and revenue from hydropower that is under pressure from a rapidly changing energy market. Will NID need to borrow its way out as current revenue streams start to dry up?
Peter Van Zant, a former Nevada County supervisor, lives in Nevada City.
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