Rich Johansen and John Norton are facing off for the Nevada Irrigation District Division 5 seat vacated by Nick Wilcox, who announced his intention not to run again for the board after 12 years.
Johansen has been endorsed by Wilcox, the Nevada County Farm Bureau and the Nevada County Contractors’ Association, among others. Norton, meanwhile, is supported by former county Supervisor Peter Van Zant, former NID board member Nancy Weber, and former planning commissioner, supervisor and current Sierra Fund CEO Elizabeth Martin.
Rich Johansen said he has stayed away from politics in the past, but is running because water security is “everything” to this community. Without a adequate water supply, he said, people can’t grow food, can’t create fire breaks, can’t support wildlife habitats and can’t fight fires.
“That’s the driving force,” he said.
Johansen is no stranger to government, however, having served on the Nevada County Planning Commission and the Agriculture Advisory Commission. But, he said, while he helped craft ordinances for the benefit of the community, none directly addressed water issues.
“We have no aquifer,” he said. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So we rely on surface water, and that leads to NID.”
Johansen said he had not planned on running, but opted to because Wilcox decided against trying for reelection.
“We had been talking forever,” Johansen said, adding that one recurring topic was the “unbelievable lengths” water districts in the southern part of the state will go to get the water.
Johansen said his previous experience showed him the importance of including the whole community in the discussion, not just special interest groups, in order to achieve a common goal.
“If I look at what I want to accomplish, it’s about collaboration, transparency and accessibility,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Some of the past action of the NID board, taken quickly due to time constraints, caused a negative public perception, Johansen said.
“So now, we have two camps — people who trust NID to do the right thing, and people who are against the dam,” he said, referring to Centennial Dam. “Now we have a divided community.”
In the end, he said, the community will decide how to proceed in the upcoming election.
“I’m not necessarily for the dam, but I’m not against it,” he said. “I am for increasing storage. I have been painted as pro-dam, but personally I have invested in conservation measures.”
One idea Johansen would like to see implemented is that of water storage on site, using 6,000- to 10,000-gallon tanks along the NID ditches that would be accessible to fire trucks.
“That is long overdue,” he said.
Johansen said the water analysis shows that the district’s demand will outstrip its supply, leading to the possibility of spot shortages.
”It does make the case of a new dam, a new reservoir,” he said. ”We’re in a world of hurt. The state requires us to look at a five-year drought. Absolutely, we need to plan for that, and that is what this does.”
Johansen said his only doubt over Centennial is its affordabilty, citing the more moderate $500 million price tag.
“If we can’t afford it, I could name off a bunch of agencies that can — and they would be happy to build it and take out water,” he said, citing a water grab as a possibility if NID drops its water rights application.
“Our community, our water, that’s my motto,” he said. “We just have to make it work for ourselves.”
John Norton said he has always had a passion for protecting water resources. Even after he retired, he continued volunteering on water issues, as a stream monitor for Sierra Streams Institute, as well as the Lake Wildwood Lake Committee.
“There’s something about water challenges,” he said. “I’m a problem solver and (water) is a never-ending challenge.”
He had been attending board meetings and said others in attendance began encouraging him to run for Wilcox’s seat.
Norton’s top priority is to focus attention on the district’s aging infrastructure. He said the district has been deferring maintenance and he wants to triage projects based on their risk factors, and ensure there’s money in the budget to tackle those projects, as well as reserves, in case of catastrophic failure.
“I think NID needs to roll up its sleeves and get back to its basic business, get back on track,” he said. “I don’t know how they got so far off track.”
He also believes the district should figure out how to control what he called endless rate increases, and needs to restore financial health and the reserves. NID, Norton said, should look to its budget, and specifically nonessential staff and projects.
“Look at bonds — can those be refinanced?” he said. “Look at administrative staff — can you reduce the bureaucracy? NID has a lot of property — can those be leased or sold?”
Lastly, he said, the district should look at rates.
“New projects are good, but you have to prioritize,” Norton said. “I have given Centennial a lot of thought. I didn’t come into it pro or con. I’m not against dams. Where I’m at right now, I don’t support it. There are way too many unanswered questions.”
Norton points to the recently released hydrology report as evidence the district embarked on the project without doing its due diligence.
“NID spent a lot of money on properties and engineering reports, but they never looked at the economic impact,” he said. “How are we going to pay for it?”
NID is looking at a 7% rate increase per year to balance the budget, Norton said, at a time when the district’s farmers say they can’t afford the water rates as they stand now. Adding a $500 million project would double the rates for treated water and would drive farms and ranches out of business, he charged.
“The new reports, do they tell us we need a dam?” Norton said, calling the numbers inconsistent and inflated.
“Part of what bothers me about the Centennial project, if you think it’s a brilliant, wonderful, needed idea, why didn’t you get the answers to the questions early in, and then go out and sell it to the community?” he said. “They acted like it was a no-brainer.”
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at [email protected]
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