It’s long been a truism that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting — particularly in the West, where water and rights to that water have sparked decades-long battles.
Certainly the last five-plus years in Nevada County have seen a long-simmering controversy over the need for a new dam, Centennial Reservoir. Centennial was a hot topic when Scott Miller ran four years ago for Nevada Irrigation District Division 3 and won his fifth term. Miller now is angling for another four years and is facing Karen Hull — whose husband, Maury, ran and lost against Miller in 2016.
Hull said that she worked closely with husband Maury during his campaign against Miller four years ago.
“We didn’t have any experience in running for office,” she said. “We learned a lot.”
But this time around, she said, it made more sense for her to run, due to her expertise in organizational management and strategy.
“For me, the issues that rise to the top are around finance,” Hull said. “My husband is an engineer. He certainly has a lot of strengths he would have brought to board. But now (Division 4 Director) Laura Peters brings great strength in those areas. So the area that seems more lacking is experience in working with a large complex organization with finance issues, in how to collaborate and problem solve across a diverse stakeholder group.”
Having a diverse board would add richer decision making and richer outcomes, Hull believes, adding that might help eliminate some of what she called disfunction on the board.
“We need people on board who can find ways to dialogue about differences of opinion without being disrespectful to each other and the community,” she said. “My belief is that the more open and transparent you are, the more you share and engage people in the conversation and engage deeply on the issues — and the more you gain trust.”
The way the Centennial Dam project has developed as a community lightning rod is indicative of that problem, Hull said.
“I think when you look at what NID ratepayers want, every single person wants reliable water for the future — and affordable water,” she said.
Hull said her primary mandate as a board member would be to provide affordable water, reliable water, and a financially healthy water district, all of which fit together.
While a new dam is one option, Hull said she has questions about some practical issues she feels NID needs to address first. Without state or federal funding, Hull said, NID will have to pass the cost on to ratepayers. And, she said, financing remains a big question mark for her.
“How do we fund this project and continue to make repairs to (NID’s) 100-year-old infrastructure so it doesn’t fail?” Hull said. “I just would like to step back and see the big picture.”
For Hull, the district’s finances are an area of specific concern.
“There’s very little budget for capital programs, and that’s a risky place to put yourself,” she said.
“How are we managing projects? Are we doing the best competitive bidding? The district has the ability to potentially renegotiate contracts with purchasers of water who might be paying under market, those also might be opportunities. I think we have to try to mitigate the negative impact of escalating rates.”
Miller calls himself a longtime “oarsman” who has rafted thousands of miles of rivers across the West. He says he got into water issues as a “young and idealistic” student at Santa Barbara, fighting against unbridled growth.
Miller, who has been on the board for 20 years, said “everybody knows who I am and what I’ve done.” But he doesn’t consider himself part of any “old guard,” citing collaborations with former board member Nancy Weber, for instance.
“I’m passionate about water and about serving my constituents,” he said, adding that as a board member, he is tasked with coming up with solutions that serve the greater good.
In Miller’s view, Centennial’s opponents have a bias that restricts their ability to plan for the long term.
“Conservation will only buy time — you have to have a bigger vision,” he said. “I’m not trying to be the old guy who is trying to violate the earth. I’m an optimist, I’m looking out for the future. The state will take our water rights if we don’t use them. So let’s be real, and control growth.”
Miller acknowledges there is a lot of frustration out there, which he said has caused a lot of emotional attacks on board members.
“People come in to the board meetings with misrepresentations and hyperbole,” he said. “It’s so one-sided. That’s why I get so bristled up. But I continue to do what I do.”
Miller also said he sometimes comes across as arrogant and disrespectful, claiming it is those attributes that allow him to accomplish his dreams of preserving the district’s water.
“I’ve always been a high-profile, fiery guy,” he said. “People either love it or hate it.”
Miller said he has always thought the reservoir was a good idea, but agrees the district also needs to spend money on infrastructure.
“NID is not going under,” he said. “We’re not in disarray.”
In Miller’s view, Centennial is the right answer to the district supply concerns.
“We need another bucket of water in the back of the wagon of life,” he said. “Right now, the project is so viable. Half the cost has dropped due to interest rates being so low. … The crazy thing right now, in 2020, there is money for infrastructure, federal funding. If we’re ever going to do it, now’s the time.”
Citing climate change, Miller said the district must prepare for an inevitable drought, arguing Centennial will allow the district some operational latitude.
“I’m an optimist,” he said. “We need to adapt and spend some money.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at [email protected]