With four candidates vying for three seats, Kurt Kautz, Mark Wilson and Paul Hensleigh were elected to serve on the Omochumne-Hartnell Water District’s five-member board.
Suzanne Pecci, who came in fourth place, was the lone candidate who was not elected.
The Nov. 5 election marked the first time since the 1970s that a board election was held in the 56-year-old, 30,000-acre district that extends from Grant Line Road to Highway 99, and from the Jackson Highway to Dillard Road. There are about 1,200 parcels within those borders.
The district’s decades-long election drought occurred as a result of an insufficient number of candidates to require elections. In previous non-election years, the candidates were instead appointed to the available seats.
Changes in the district’s operations led to a greater number of candidates for the recent election.
The district’s biggest issue is implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was passed by the state Legislature in 2016, and requires all local jurisdictions to either develop their own groundwater sustainability agencies or have the state manage the groundwater.
All members of the board serve four-year terms, and some of the board seats become available every two years.
The Omochumne-Hartnell Water District is a landowner-based district; thus elections are based on acreages, and each voter is allowed to cast one vote for each acre the voter owns within the district.
Mike Wackman, the district’s general manager, told the Citizen that with greater interest in the district’s activities, the potential to have elections for board seats every two years has greatly increased.
“I think we just haven’t had candidates in the past, because nobody’s really had the interest in being a part of the board or really interested in the water district,” he said. “I think that might be changing as we move forward into the future.”
Kautz, who was the top vote-getter with 7,293 votes, retained his seat as the district’s most senior member. He has served on the board for about the past 20 years.
With his longevity on the board, Kautz recalled past struggles to fill board seats.
“Normally, every year you’re trying to find someone willing to get on the board,” he said. “It’s been tough. With the passage of SGMA, there’s a lot more interest and concern in water in our district. I think a lot of boards are having elections now that never had that issue before.”
SGMA, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, creates a framework for sustainable groundwater management in California.
This management is described by the state Department of Water Resources as “management and use of groundwater in a manner that can be maintained during the planning and implementation horizon without causing undesirable results.”
Kautz, a farmer in the district since 1985, mentioned possible changes related to the passage of SGMA.
“(With SGMA, there is) a lot of groundwater management, groundwater planning, groundwater monitoring, both for quality and quantity,” he said. “And along with that comes potentially new taxes and fees on people. So, that’s why the concern.”
Kautz also explained why it was important to him to continue serving on the board.
“In order to try to protect the water, you have to be involved,” he said. “If you’re not involved in making the decisions, someone else is going to make them for you. We’re in agriculture, and 50 percent of the agriculture business is water.”
Kautz added that he and two others bring a “farmer’s perspective” to the board.
“Two other of the board members are active farmers in that area, so we all kind of have the same thought process to protect agriculture in the district from anybody that may want to take water or use it in a manner that is different from how agriculturists feel it should be used,” he said.
Hensleigh, a new member of the board and an owner of 101 acres in the district, explained why he ran for a seat on the board.
“(It was) mostly because I was concerned about kind of the local control and protection of the water,” he said. “I’ve lived in the Sheldon area for about the last 20 years. I had a well for my house water and also cattle. So, I’ve got an ag well that (he uses to) irrigate pastures, so I have an interest in (the district).
“Over the past summer, I bought a lot of property at Sloughhouse,” Hensleigh continued. “So, I’m obviously concerned about the flow of the Cosumnes River and Deer Creek. And I found out about the (district’s) groundwater recharge that they’ve been working on, so I have a strong interest in that (project).”
Wilson submitted a brief statement to the Citizen by email.
“With the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the water district is going to affect a lot of people within its borders,” he wrote.
Wilson, who owns property in Wilton, also expressed a desire for the district to increase its visibility.
“My guess is that most of those people don’t even know the district they are in exists,” he wrote. “People need to understand and participate in the local government agencies that affect them directly.”