Merced Irrigation District! This group, which can't even handle its normal irrigation business without the odor of scandal, is supposed to be able to negotiate its relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? The state Department of Water Resources trusts MID to lead, plan and administer the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan (IRWMP "Ear-wimp")?
MID is a very shaky organization.
Following her dishonorable role in attempting to bankrupt the environmental groups that publicly sued the Riverside Motorsports Park project near her dairy while she and other farmers hid behind them and schemed against them, Suzy Hultgren was miraculously appointed to the county farm bureau board of directors and soon after won election to the board of the Merced Irrigation District. Evidently, her extensive family, with roots here and there all over the county, has decided to make Suzy its public face. Included in that family is her cousin, John Sweigard, who left his position on the west side as general manager of the Patterson Irrigation District and board member on the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority board.
So, in a year with a 55-percent snowpack in the Sierras and cuts in delivery amounts to irrigators in the district, MID sells 15,000 acre-feet to the San Luis Water District. The two public proponents of the sale are Sweigard, former board member of the SLDMWA, and Hultgren, his cousin, with Hicham Eltal, assistant general manager, trotting on behind.
The sale will equal $2.64 million. Has anyone thought to ask why MID is risking a lawsuit from the El Nido farmers for the money? What does the district need it for? Does it have to do with the FERC relicensing? The process has driven off two of his predecessors. Does MID need the money to match state funds for the IRWMP
Too late, evidently. Sweigard claims that even the threat of a lawsuit gives him the opportunity that he wants to offer "no comment" to the press.
And why should he, when he's got his cousin to spout his lines?
It doesn't matter anyway, because neither El Nido farmers or any other group will have the guts to sue MID. When Director Wil Hunter introduced his golfing buddy, Sweigard, to the executive-search agency, Jim Zopolos, who Hunter had suggested for the search to replace the last MID general manager to flee, the farmers' and the directors' goose was cooked. They won't sue. They didn't oppose the railroad from Livingston. They are a fearful, cowering lot.
Observing this from the sidelines, the environmental community remembers which several of its groups raised the issue of an earlier MID water transfer during a meeting of the Merced Area Groundwater Pool Interests meeting. MID staff stenuously denied it and MAGPI chairman Bob Kelley sneered at the mere suggestion of such a thing. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that MID had made a water transfer.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Growers criticize transfer of water MID sale comes as Sierra snowpack is half of normal…JOSHUA EMERSON SMITH
The Sierra Nevada snowpack is still only about half of normal, and as dry times persist, so does the infighting over water.
Local disgruntled farmers continue to take issue with Merced Irrigation District's sale of 15,000 acre-feet of water to the San Luis Water District.
At Tuesday's MID meeting, El Nido farmers blasted the board for going ahead with the deal despite issuing water curtailmentsfor growers.
The issue is especially sensitive since El Nido growers receive half the water the rest of the district gets during drought years. This year, most MID growers are limited to four acre-feet of water an acre, while El Nido growers get up to two acre-feet an acre. (An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.)
"We can't sell (water) in a critically dry year," said Gino Pedretti, an MID director. "We need to rescind that (deal) and keep it for our people."
Pedretti and other El Nido growers made the argument that the transfer violates the state water code.
Opponents of the sale have quoted California Water Code 22259:
"If its board deems it to be for the best interests of the district, a district may enter into a contract for the lease or sale of any surplus water or use of surplus water not then necessary for use within the district, for use either within or without the district."
John Sweigard, MID general manager, said the staff couldn't comment on the legality of a water sale during a year when acurtailment has been issued because the MID is preparing for a possible court battle. He declined to say with whom. "We'renot at liberty to discuss the legalities of that. We've been threatened with litigation and once that occurs we have to stayoff of that topic and see how that plays out," Sweigard said.
Selling water in a drought year when water curtailments are issued doesn't violate the state water code, according to theState Water Resources Control Board.
Pedretti made a motion to kill the San Luis water transfer during the meeting, but only he and Wil Hunter, MID board vice president, voted for it.
Before the votes were cast, the "use it or lose it" argument was repeated several times.
"As far as water rights, what's going to happen if environmentalists find out that you're selling water outside the district when you're cutting members of the district back?" asked El Nido farmer Gino Pedretti Jr., son of the Division 2 director.
"What's that going to do to water rights?"
But competing with fears over losing water rights was the idea that regardless of whether the district sells the water to San Luis, it would still release that 15,000 acre-feet down the Merced River.
To satisfy Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requirements, the MID must release, in dry years, a minimum of 60 cubic feet per second down the Merced River during the winter and spring. In wet years, that requirement increases to 70 cubic feet per second. In the summer and fall the flow requirements are lower.
However, because other factors affect the level of the river -- including out-of-district water users who draw on river water -- district officials release extra water in the spring and winter as a hedge against violating the federal requirement.
MID has been voluntarily releasing an extra roughly 100 cubic feet per second down the Merced River in spring and winter for decades, said Hicham Eltal, MID deputy general manager. "With or without the transfer, that water will still have to go to the ocean or whoever picks it up downstream," he said.
In this case, San Luis will be getting up to 15,000 acre-feet of it downstream -- and paying MID $176 an acre-foot for it.
"If we can benefit from putting the water in there that we have to put in there and get paid for it, it's a pretty big deal," said Suzy Hultgren, MID board president. "It's not a faucet. It's not like 15,000 acre-feet will suddenly come down and save the entire season for everybody."
MID staff said it will review the legal implications of making out-of-district water sales during drought years when water use is capped.
Merced Irrigation District hires new general manager
John Sweigard held the same position in the Patterson Irrigation District...JONAH OWEN LAMB
Merced Irrigation District's board of directors hired a new general manager Friday, filling a seat vacated by Dan Pope who resigned in July.
The new general manager, John Sweigard, 38, will start his $170,000-a-year job Jan. 11. He was formerly the general manager of Patterson Irrigation District for more than a decade, and sat on the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority boards.
Sweigard, from Merced, is also MID Director Suzy Hultgren's cousin. (Hultgren is a voting member on the board that hiredSweigard.) She could not be reached for comment.
"He is a very talented young man of 38, was the manager of Patterson Irrigation District and he comes highly recommended,"said MID director Wil Hunter.
According to an MID announcement, Sweigard has an agricultural engineering degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and went to Livingston High School. In addition to his experience in Patterson, he is a member of the U.S Committee on Irrigation and Drainage. He first worked for the MID while in college as a night patrolman and a canal tender. He could not be reached forcomment.
Sweigard's wide experience will be an asset to the district, said Board Chair Tim Pellessier. "He has experience dealing with
the regulators, the legislature and that helps us," he said.
MID paid JP Zopolos & Associates Inc., a local job hiring firm, $56,000 to search for a new general manager, according to MID.
Starting in October, Jim Zopolos began calling irrigation districts from Chico to Bakersfield in search of a new generalmanager, he said.
He did not advertise the position, Zopolos said.
"I don't advertise," he said. "If you put an ad in the newspaper you don't find the quality people. John Sweigard was not out looking for a job."
During the search period, Zopolos interviewed 60 people and finally recommended two candidates for an interview with theboard, he said.
This was the first time his firm worked for MID, and the first time he'd recruited for a public entity, he said.
The district chose to hire the firm so it could quickly hire a qualified general manger, said Pellessier.
When MID hired Pope, it advertised the position in niche water publications, said Pellessier. They decided to change their recruitment methods this time since it took so long last time.
Hunter agreed with the process. "I thought it was best to open up for all applicants and be fair with everyone," he said despite the lack of public notification for the position. Hunter also said he wanted to look for a new general manager from outside of MID.
The interim general manager, Hicham Eltal, was also promoted recently to deputy general manager with a salary of $145,000.
Merced Irrigation District Board of Directors
Suzy Hultgren - President (Division 4)
Ms. Hultgren is a life-long Merced County rancher, and dairy operator with a family ranching history in Merced County reaching back to the early 20th century. Over the past several years, she has converted the Hultgren dairy to an organic operation. Ms. Hultgren is very active in the agricultural community, a member of the California Women for Agriculture, and the California Farm Bureau...
Loose Lips: Councilman armed and ready
The recent hiring of John Sweigard as the new general manager of the Merced Irrigation District has got Lips scratching its head.
Where does the appearance of conflict of interest stop and actual conflict of interest begin?
If you've paid attention to recent events at MID, the answer would be hard to come by.
Not only did MID Director Suzy Hultgren vote with the rest of the bunch to hire her cousin Sweigard, but the man paid by the board to find Sweigard is Director Will Hunter's golfing buddy.
While Hultgren couldn't be reached for comment on why she didn't recuse herself from voting to hire her cousin, Hunter did have something to say about the hiring of his friend Jim Zopolos for MID's executive search.
"There was no conflict of interest," said Hunter of both the hirings. He said he introduced Zopolos to the board and told the board they're buddies. Hunter said that having a friendship in business is one of the best ways to know who you are dealing with and who is good at their job.
That may be true, but it doesn't mean a Merced City Council person, for example, wouldn't have a conflict of interest if he voted to hire his father's company to fix roads in Merced. Business is one thing, government is another. Remember, Mr. Hunter, you work for the people of Merced -- not a private company.