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With the completion of New Don Pedro Dam, the
Modesto irrigation District entered a new era
full of challenges undreamed of a score of years
earlier. District officials found themselves in
a computer age filled with new and uncharted fields
of activities and responsibilities.
A century ago, the district?s founding fathers
whose sole objective was to provide water to extend
irrigation seasons, could not have envisioned
the complexities which their district faces today.
Current concerns range from providing recreation
facilities to domestic water delivery, energy
conservation, canal beautification, sponsoring
learn to swim classes and water-safety education.
New departments for personnel management, data
control, fiscal control, administration, resource
development and energy conservation all have been
established as the district became big business
with an annual budget of exceeding $115 million
and assets of $526 million.
These changes made in the last 20 years have
been as dramatic as two earlier critical stages
in the development of the MID : its initial creation
and its decision to generate and distribute electrical
These recent changes were more evolutionary than
revolutionary, however. Thus, they have not been
accompanied by the vitriolic disputes which marked
those earlier periods. The district?s record of
success has projected a feeling of confidence
and stability to its citizens.
As the community and the utility grew in size,
the amount of individual contact has declined.
For most people, the only contact with the MID ,
other than pleasant summer outings at Don Pedro
Lake, has been their power bills. As a result
of a constant search for new efficient and economical
sources of energy and a vigorous effort to encourage
conservation, MID electrical rates have remained
substantially lower than the average rates paid
throughout the nation.
The growing demand for electrical energy, its
sources, its transmission and its delivery to
the homes, businesses and farms of the MID dominated
the thinking of the board of directors and staff
from the completion of New Don Pedro until the
Modesto?s share of the energy generated in the
new powerhouse provides less than 25 percent of
the amount needed to meet the needs of the rapidly-growing
metropolitan area. The other 75 percent now comes
from outside sources, primarily through purchases
from San Francisco?s Hetch Hetchy system and the
Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Escalating
prices of energy from these sources and the insecurity
of renewable contracts caused the start of an
effort to make the district more energy independent.
Every possible source ? nuclear, solar, geothermal,
coal-fired plants, gas turbines, the old favorite
hydro, co-generation, biomass, even windmills
? was explored.
For more than a decade, starting at a time when
even the Sierra Club?s Tuolumne River Conference
advocated the development of nuclear power as
preferable to additional hydro projects on the
Tuolumne, the MID considered various proposals
for nuclear generation.
The Sierra Club in July 1970 issued a "crisis
report" calling for the development of a nuclear
plant in the Cooperstown area of Tuolumne County
in Lieu of further hydroelectric development by
the City of San Francisco. The Sierra Club wanted
the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts,
not San Francisco, to build and operate the plant.
Two years later retiring MID Chief Engineer Jess
Grigsby filed a final report in which he advocated
several major changes for the Modesto district,
including a strong plea for the establishment
of a nuclear plant in the Cooperstown area. Board
President Thomas K. Beard urged the district to
"protect itself in the power field" by developing
a nuclear generating plant in cooperation with
In 1974 the MID , TID and PG & E actively
pursued the idea as a joint venture; preliminary
investigations indicated it would be feasible.
Additional studies by Arthur D. Little, Inc.,
a financial and engineering consulting firm, in
1975 found nuclear power the most economically-advantageous
alternative source of energy, declaring:
No commercial technology has received
anything comparable in the attention, effort,
and money spent to minimize the hazards it presents.
And no commercial technology has a better safety
record?.and demonstrable benefits of nuclear power
far outweigh the potential risks.
Further studies demonstrated in 1976 that the
district?s share of a single nuclear plant plus
its existing hydro generation would meet the community?s
needs for the foreseeable future. Severe restraints
imposed by the State of California on nuclear
plant proposals stifled this source of energy
in 1977 and the local project was abandoned.
The idea did not go away, however.
There followed a flurry of activity in the quest
for new energy sources. Consumption in the district
continued to increase at a rate of 8 to 10 per
cent a year. Not only did the population grow,
but the individual use of electricity also kept
climbing. New energy sources had to be found.
Shortly after becoming the district?s general
manager in October 1980, H. L. "Les" Brooks recognized
the need for greater concentration on long-range
power resource development. Accordingly, Chief
Electrical Engineer Charles S. Viss was named
assistant general manager for power resources,
separated from the day-to-day operations of the
MID ?s electrical division which was placed under
the direction of Vincent Bradford.
The change was part of a general reorganization
through which Brooks, who before his promotion
had been district secretary-treasurer, sought
to strengthen the application of business techniques
and practices to the district?s operation. The
post of controller, established in 1974, was combined
with that of MID treasurer and upgraded to assistant
general manager for finance. Broadened responsibilities
in the field of purchasing, material management,
accounting, and data processing through the district?s
extensive computer system were assigned to the
The newly-created power resources division quickly
evolved into the focal point for power resources
planning, both on the part of the district alone
and in association with other power agencies.
The first of several alliances formed by the
MID in its quest for new energy sources was the
M-S-R Public Power Agency, composed of the Modesto
district and the Cities of Santa Clara and Redding.
One of several power projects considered by M-S-R
was participation in the Palo Verde Nuclear Project
in Arizona. Santa Clara subsequently decided not
to participate in this project. The MID and City
of Redding, however, entered into negotiations
with Arizona?s Salt River Project and the Arizona
Public Service Agency for a share of the energy
to be generated at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating
Station under construction near Phoenix. A $1
million refundable deposit was made. With a $350
million bond issue involved, estimates of the
cost to the districts over a 30-year period totaled
$1.5 billion. Compared to power purchased from
PG & E, MID officials figured this would be
a good deal.
The reaction to nuclear energy caused an immediate
uproar in Redding, While things were somewhat
quieter in Modesto, elections on whether to proceed
with the purchase were set in both places. In
April 1982, Redding voters rejected the proposal
by a 2-to-1 margin. Two months later Modestans
followed suit, voting against the purchase 15,063
The Modesto district?s second venture into an
exotic energy field was far more successful than
its nuclear power efforts and may, in the final
analysis, involve an investment which dwarfs the
$115 million cost of New Don Pedro. In an age
of environmental concerns, geothermal steam offers
great potential as a source of energy. The pressure
of steam coming from two miles below the earth?s
surface is constant, not dependent upon the vagaries
of nature ? drought, storms, winter snowpacks
and river runoffs.
At the same time the Palo Verde nuclear power
source was being investigated, the MID , as part
of the M-S-R group and in league with the Sacramento
Municipal Utility District, formed a new joint-action
agency called the Central California Power Agency
No.1 and turned to geothermal steam as a new source
Construction of the Coldwater Creek Geothermal
Generating Plant by the Central California Power
Agency No. 1 is under way on 3,200 acres in Lake
and Sonoma Counties with proven geothermal steam
production. Two generators will be on the line
in 1988, at which time the MID will receive 52
megawatts of energy. This source alone will offer
the district as much energy as it now receives
from New Don Pedro.
In a separate geothermal effort in the same general
Geysers area, M-S-R turned up a dry hole but a
second well proved operational. The Central California
Power Agency No. 1 prospects were far superior,
however. As a result, the M-S-R field presently
is being leased to an independent party for development,
with the royalties to be paid to the agencies
rather than the delivery of energy.
Meanwhile, the three M-S-R partners bought an
interest in still another source of energy, the
recently completed coal-fired San Juan Generating
Station operated by the Public Service Company
of New Mexico at Farmington, NM. This project
also involves acquiring additional transmission
services and ultimately will provide the Modesto
district with another 69 megawatts of power.
Coupled with anticipated supplies from San Francisco?s
Hetch Hetchy system, the Pacific Northwest and
the Federal Western Area Power Agency, plus existing
hydro power ? including the recently completed
2.5 megawatt mini-hydro plant at the base of New
Hogan Dam on the Calaveras River ? these major
new sources should insure an adequate energy supply
into the mid-1990s.
As the MID looks to more and more remote sources
of energy, the problem of power transmission becomes
crucial. One of the first steps taken to insure
more dependable supplies of electricity, especially
in the event of power outages, was joint MID -TID
construction in 1975 of a 230,000-volt intertie
transmission line to connect their systems with
PG& E?s main north-south transmission lines
at the foot of the Coast Range west of Interstate
Meanwhile, the Modesto Irrigation District has
joined forces with many other agencies working
on several fronts to meet the challenge.
As a member of the Transmission Agency of Northern
California, commonly referred to as TANC, the
Modesto district is negotiating to build a 500,000-volt
transmission line from Central California to the
Pacific Northwest to tap surplus Bonneville Power
Administration power from the Columbia River and
other Pacific Northwest resources. United in this
massive joint effort are 15 publicly-owned power
agencies, the State of California, the federal
Western Area Power Administration and three investor
Climate causes the Pacific Northwest?s greatest
power demand to occur in the winter while Central
California?s greatest demands are in the summer.
Thus, the ability to exchange power seasonally
between the Northwest and California over a connecting
grid will permit more efficient use of generation
resources in both regions.
Additionally, the three Northern California partners
in the San Juan Generating Plant are working with
federal agencies, the Salt River Project and Southern
California power utilities to develop transmission
lines to serve its members from the New Mexico
While design, planning and negotiations are under
way on these three major projects, the Modesto
district, in association with other agencies is
negotiating "wheeling" contracts with PG &E
whereby the MID ?s geothermal-generated energy
would be delivered to Modesto via the private
utility?s transmission lines.
The Modesto Irrigation District?s strength was
built on hydroelectric power. That source of energy
still is very much in the minds of its directors,
engineers and administrators, although further
development on the Tuolumne River as far as the
delivery of irrigation water and maintaining flood
control are concerned. There still remain, however,
hydroelectric generation sites with strong potential.
One such project was the proposed Clavey-Wards
Ferry hydro plant, which could have yielded 400
megawatts. The MID and TID were well into the
second year of a comprehensive feasibility and
environmental study of the site when in September
1984 President Ronald Reagan signed legislation
establishing that section of the Tuolumne as a
wild and scenic river.
The Turlock district has continued to study potential
hydro development in the region, but Modesto has
delayed participation in these studies. It is
anticipated the day will come, however, when further
hydroelectric development will be appropriate.
Still another complete turnaround has occurred
within the MID during the past two decades.
In the 1960s and before, the district was proud
of its constant 8 to 10 percent annual growth
in electrical consumption. But in the 1970s, especially
during the period of severe drought, it became
too much of a good thing.
The drought of 1976-77 forced the district to
purchase from other sources twice its normal amounts
of outside energy. This meant that, as the relatively
inexpensive Hetch Hetchy supply was exhausted,
the MID was forced to buy more expensive power
from PG & E. Purchases of outside power totaled
$26 million in 1977 alone, more than double normal
figures. At the same time, indications surfaced
that rates under new Hetch Hetchy power contracts
being negotiated were not going to be as favorable
in the past. As much as two-thirds of the energy
used in the district is provided by this source.
The conservation of energy became a major challenge.
On hot summer afternoons the peak demands for
air conditioning and cooling units require great
quantities of energy. In the Modesto district
this sends power purchase costs skyrocketing.
There are two ways to supply this demand: conservation
and standby gas-turbine generators.
During 1976 and 1977 when California suffered
the driest two-year rainfall period in its recorded
history, the levels of New Don Pedro and Hetch
Hetchy Reservoirs dropped drastically, curbing
power generation. A concerted conservation program
was made necessary by the once-in-200-year drought.
Aimed primarily at homeowners who voluntarily
reduced air conditioning use during specified
hours, the program was well received in its trial
As a result of this initial success, the MID
Board of Directors determined that energy conservation
was to be a permanent part of its operations.
At first a part-time, somewhat temporary activity
in response to the drought, conservation became
a full-time function.
During the years to follow, the district called
upon a variety of advisory groups, including the
chamber of commerce and building industry associations,
to assist in developing voluntary programs which
were sweetened with financial incentives.
In 1983 a "Shave The Energy Peak" STEP program
was implemented to control electric loads during
hot summer days when air conditioning consumed
vast amounts of power. Home and commercial audits
were instituted and assistance in building energy-efficient
homes was offered. In May 1985 the conservation
functions were upgraded to become the responsibility
of a separate Energy Management Department.
The MID directors? heightened concern over the
levels of energy consumption recorded in the past
decade is reflected in this recently adopted policy
The Modesto Irrigation District?s
energy management objective is to encourage conservation
and to promote the efficient use of electrical
Thus, another transition, from a position of
pride in growth to one of pride in conservation,
has been completed.
The district also followed up on the other alternative,
installing the McClure gas-turbine generators
in 1980 and 1981. The two units, generating 56
megawatts each, are used to provide standby peaking
power at periods of high demand.
As the Modesto Irrigation District?s first century
came to a close, still another complete cycle
had been made in the distribution of water.
At the outset, the district was interested primarily
in the delivery of water. As the need for additional
storage demanded the construction of Don Pedro
Dam in 1923, the generation of electrical energy
became the "by-product" which for decades dominated
the district?s actions.
Today as adequate energy supplies appear to be
in sight, the district once again is turning its
attention to the basic issue of delivering water.
A century ago, the prime objective of the MID
was the delivery of water to farmers, a goal achieved
efficiently with much of its irrigation system
automated. Today the MID is focusing on a new
aspect of water delivery: the treatment and supply
of domestic and industrial water to greater Modesto
The City of Modesto and Del Este Water Company,
which serves many urban areas, depend solely upon
pumping water from wells. Not only are they watching
the water tables decline, but they also are finding
more and more contaminants, primarily nitrates
and salts, in their water. Some wells have been
shut down for this reason.
Studies are under way between MID , the City of
Modesto and Del Este to determine the best method
for delivering treated Tuolumne River water for
domestic consumption in greater Modesto. There
seems to be no doubt that the MID will be involved
as the principal agency in the operation. The
question is "How?"
As the Modesto Irrigation District enters its
second century of operation, the answer to this
question dominated its thinking and planning.
Decisions as to where to divert flows for domestic
use, whether the water should be treated before
or after delivery to the city and the private
water company, charges, etc., likely will be made
in the year the MID celebrates its 100th birthday.
Surprisingly, the shift from agricultural deliveries
to domestic and industrial supplies will have
little impact upon the total amount of water used
within the district. Kennan Beard, president of
Del Este Water Company who served four years as
an MID director before retiring at the end of
The old rule of thumb is that an
acre of ground takes about the same amount of
water, whether it?s in agriculture, homes or industry.
However, if you build streets and
houses and cover up the soil you don?t get the
percolation that you do from agricultural irrigation
or rainwater. In fact, I wouldn't?t be surprised
but that the vast majority of water we pump in
this area isn?t percolated irrigation water.
Thus, as more and more farmland becomes covered
with asphalt, homes and shopping malls, there
will be a significant impact upon the water-table
The most critical water issue looming on the
horizon, causing immediate concern as the MID
starts a new century of public service is the
protection of its water rights. Depending on how
it is resolved, this issue could determine the
course of the district during its next 100 years.
Robert A. Beck, MID board president in the district?s
centennial year, warns that the State of California
covets the water now used by the Valley districts
for irrigation, warning:
The state is looking hard at the
Tuolumne River for water to use elsewhere and
it intends to get it. Their current requests for
releases downstream would equal the total amount
of water used for MID crops for an entire year.
For the foreseeable future, protecting the district?s
long-standing water rights will be the major challenge
facing the district.
Taking its cue from the California Supreme Court
ruled that Los Angeles? water rights had been
granted years ago "subject to the public trust."
Some water law authorities interpret the decision
as meaning that if, for instance, the "public
trust" warrants additional releases from Don Pedro
Lake to enhance bass fishing in the Tuolumne River,
or the aesthetic beauty for downstream parks or
whatever, the state board could force the district
to give up the water for these purposes without
compensation of any type ? without respect for
the amount of blood, sweat and cash that have
been invested in the project over the century.
Irrigation officials maintain that such an action
would violate federal constitutional protections
against the taking of property without just compensation.
If it adheres to this philosophy ? that when
the public interest demands it, long-established
water rights could be restricted or reassigned
? the role of the California Water Resources Control
Board would take on an entirely new dimension
of authority with much greater power. The board
originally was established to perform the limited
role of issuing rights to water that is not being
applied to useful and beneficial purposes or that
is otherwise not appropriated.
No vested water right will be restricted or removed
without a monumental struggle, however.
Meanwhile, the California Constitution provides
that water rights holders must put these waters
to reasonable, beneficial use. Wasteful uses cannot
be protected by water rights.
Use it or lose it!
For the good of the entire community, farmer
and city dweller alike, it is essential for the
future success of the MID that its water continue
to be put to productive, beneficial use as acres
of homes and shopping centers replace acres of
Life was much simpler 100 years ago as the founding
directors had only to think of putting the water
on the land. Today as the Modesto Irrigation District
looks ahead, problems are much more complex: Electrical
energy comes from a variety of sources, water
resource demands are broadening, state and federal
governments are involved in all levels of operation,
and historically-held water rights may be in jeopardy.
The MID ?s first century was devoted to establishment
and growth and the second century must be dedicated
to retaining the achievements of the past is the
way MID Board President Beck evaluates the situation
as the district begins its second 100 years.
Foresight of the type displayed by those who
fought to create and keep the district alive,
careful planning and probably more judicial and
legislative battles of the type that have marked
the Modesto Irrigation District?s history will
be required to maintain the MID ?s legacy of independence