Much has changed in a short amount of time at Nevada Irrigation District, which has been serving water to western Nevada County for more than 100 years.
Fewer than five years ago, the water district had formally applied and was laying the groundwork for construction of the controversial Centennial Dam on the Bear River, between Combie and Rollins reservoirs in South County.
But then came community backlash.
Opponents decried a lack of transparency, uncertainty about the cost of the project, how it would be financed, the purchase of real estate prior to the project’s approval and questions on whether such a storage project was even necessary.
Two election cycles later, the entire board has been turned over with five new members.
A new general manager is at the helm, the first woman to lead the district.
And the proposed Centennial Dam project has been back-burnered.
Jennifer Hanson, who was hired by NID in 2021, joined host Cheryl Dell in last week’s inaugural Nevada County Community Forum at Sierra College in Grass Valley. Hanson told the audience that while the district has plenty of work on its plate, the dam project dominating headlines just a few years ago, is not part of the plan — at least in the short term.
“Centennial Dam is completely placed on hold,” Hanson said. “It’s a non-project. It’s not in our capital program right now. It’s not actively being worked on right now, because we are doing the ‘Plan for Water.’
“So our commitment, to basically the outcry we got from the community, was to do a more thoughtful process and analysis on what we actually need.”
Since taking over, Hanson and the new board have developed a new strategic plan, the first for the district since 2016. Approved in April, the plan places higher priority on the study, evaluation, repairs and maintenance of its already existing infrastructure, especially with changing weather patterns.
That work alone expects to come at a significant cost to the district and aging infrastructure must be addressed alongside other projects underway or under consideration.
The district’s work on its “Plan for Water” study and community discussion is geared to get the information it needs to prioritize projects to continue serving its 25,000 customers while maintaining and upgrading the system that delivers their water.
‘MILES AND MILES OF INFRASTRUCTURE’
Hanson expects to have more information this fall from the “Plan for Water” study to inform the development of the district’s five-year treated water master plan, an updated raw water master plan and a hydroelectric master plan — all part of the top priority “Long-Term Infrastructure and Water Supply Reliability” outlined in the strategic plan.
“One of the greatest things about NID, and one of the most challenging things about NID,” Hanson said, “is it’s extremely old and it’s extremely big, and so what that means is we get miles and miles of infrastructure.”
That essentially amounts to 475-500 miles of canals and another 400 miles of treated water lines, she said. The district is experiencing significant leakage and failures due to aged infrastructure, including at the Lake Wildwood and Lake of the Pines treatment plants, both of which were constructed in the 1960s, Hanson said. Much of the district’s infrastructure is in the 50-60 year-old range. That work, which can cost in the ballpark of $1 million to $2 million per mile, needs to be completed over number of years, she said.
“If you don’t systematically replace it little by little over time, it all comes due and home to roost at the same time,” she said, noting the lifecycle for much of that infrastructure is within 60-100 years. “Even if we started the 100-year lifecycle today, moving forward, we would still need to be spending about $7 million a year on replacement costs, which we haven’t been doing … we’ve been doing some replacement, but it’s been a little bit more piecemeal.”
In addition to the replacement of water lines, the district also has its Scotts Flat Spillway project ahead, a $20 million to $25 million endeavor expected to receive federal or state funding for financing. Several hydropower and meadow restoration projects are also in the works, she said.
A QUESTION OF RESILIENCY
Some of NID’s infrastructure harkens back to the district’s early days, as wooden plumes still carry snowpack water from the Sierra to the foothills below, leaving delivery vulnerable to the danger of wildfire.
Hanson said the South Yuba Canal, a 17-mile stretch which feeds water from Bowman Lake and Lake Spaulding into Scotts Flat, is among the most vulnerable.
“Fourteen miles of it is on an elevated wooden flume in a heavily forested area that is very prone to wildfire, as well as snow avalanches and landslides,” Hanson said.
In August 2021, the Caldor Fire destroyed a significant stretch of the El Dorado Canal, operated by El Dorado Irrigation District about 25 miles east of Placerville along Highway 50. According to the district, it took to until early May 2022 to replace the previously wooden flume sections destroyed by fire and resume water delivery via the canal.
Hanson said if the South Yuba Canal was impacted by wildfire, NID could see similar timetable — nine to 18 months, depending on the extent of damage — for getting delivery back on line.
But, she noted, despite rumors to the contrary that doesn’t mean the community would be without water in the meantime.
“In the short term, yes, we would have enough water to get through about a year to 18 months,” she said, but noted that would require additional pumping costs, conservation efforts and, hopefully, state or federal emergency funding.
NID also has completed and planned forest management projects to help reduce the threat of fire to its delivery systems. Partnering with the Sierra Nevada Conservancy through grant funding, Hanson said the district has managed about 800 acres of forest work through since 2020.
Once completed, the “Plan for Water” will guide the district’s project priorities moving forward, Hanson said.
If, for example, it is determined Centennial Dam is no longer a priority, then the district would likely reallocate some assets through the sale of real estate property it bought in advance of the project.
An audit released by the water district in August 2019, showed the district had spent $12.3 million on the Centennial Dam project between 2014 and 2017, with $6.15 million of that spent on property and appraisal services. As The Union reported, an independent review of NID property purchases in Bear River Canyon, compiled via a public records request in 2019, showed an additional $1.6 million spent on property in 2018 — a total expenditure of $7.6 million on 31 parcels.
Hanson said considering the costs the district will face with its work on existing infrastructure, NID’s analysis and planning to prioritize its $80 million annual budget is key.
“Some of the challenges we have coming up in relation to infrastructure are simply related to maintaining and replacing of infrastructure that we already had,” she said.
“So that’s one of the things you’ll hear us start talking about coming up into the future is how do we fund these infrastructure projects? Because there is going to be a lot of money come due for our district in the next 10 to 20 years.”
Brian Hamilton is a member of the Nevada County Community Forum Steering Committee. Contact him at email@example.com.