Lake San Antonio (copy)

Lake San Antonio.

In February 2017, the Oroville Dam’s spillways failed. It prompted the California Department of Water Resources’ Division of Dam Safety to reevaluated the condition of aging spillways across the state.

After inspecting the Nacimiento and San Antonio dams in South Monterey County, the department sent a letter to the Monterey County Water Resources Agency requiring that major repairs to both dams be completed by Nov. 1, 2024.

If repairs aren’t completed, the state could restrict the operation of the dams, preventing water storage and—because the dams are located in the Salinas Valley—potentially hurting the area’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry.

On Thursday, Sept. 19, in a special joint meeting between the Monterey County Water Resources Agency’s board of directors and the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, the two entities and numerous stakeholders heard a presentation on potential plans to make those repairs. The first step is deciding how to raise the $150 million needed to repair the two aging dams. 

The most costly project will be replacing San Antonio’s 55-year-old spillway, which has a price tag of $60 million. Kari Wagner of the San Luis Obispo-based engineering firm Wallace Group cautioned that the overall price tag may change as plans develop.

Because of the large and immediate need for funds, the agency proposed funding the repairs with a 30-year bond. MCWRA General Manager Brent Buche gave three options for financing the bond. The taxes to repay the bond would be voted on and paid by those who live in the area and who receive water or flood protection from the dam. 

The first option is to create a special assessment district. Under this option, the tax rate would vary based on what benefits the landowner receives from the dam. For example, the tax for grazing land would be less than the cost for heavily irrigated strawberry fields. (About half of the land served by the dam is irrigated.) However, everybody living within the flood zone would pay for the benefit of flood protection. 

Another option is a parcel tax, assessed either at a flat rate or a per-acre basis. Under this option, the tax rate would be the same across land uses. 

Ann Myhre, a San Ardo landowner, took issue with this option. “I’m concerned with equality,” she said.  If grazing and municipal land are taxed at the same rate as water-intensive farmland, Myhre claimed, “You’re going to see properties changing hands.”

The third option presented is a community facilities district special tax. Also known as a Mello-Roos bond, this plan would offer more flexibility in how the funds generated may be used. Like the parcel tax, this plan would not adjust rates according to land use. 

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Board members and representatives had different reactions to the options. Mike LeBarre, mayor of King City, proposed a pay-as-you-go system: instead of bond payments over 30 years, property owners would make larger payments over the next five years.  Mike Scattini, a North Monterey County farmer and MCWRA board member, proposed raising the revenue from an extraction fee, directly charging water use.

“I don’t think it’s fair when you look at it from acreage,” he said.

Buche responded that the county lacks the infrastructure to monitor water use, and the immediate need for funds precludes the use of an extraction fee.

Meanwhile, Acting County Counsel Les Girard said that system wouldn’t account for the other benefits the dam provides: “If you do an extraction fee, you’re not collecting from people who benefit from flood control.”

The agency is also looking for federal grants and private funding to reduce the cost burden on landowners. Agency staff will consider the feedback of attendees and deliver a report to the Board of Directors and Board of Supervisors, which may happen in November. The proposal chosen may be on the ballot in late 2020 or early 2021. 

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