Koehn salutes the good fight to protect water

October 5, 2017

Scott Koehn has served on the Merced Irrigation District Board of Directors during the past five years — a time of extraordinary debate about the future of our local water supply in a state struggling with drought cycles and a surging population.
Last December, when fed-up farmers decided to drive their tractors onto Main Street in Merced to protest a possible state “water grab,” Koehn was among the local representatives who spoke up at a big meeting inside the Merced Theatre.
“We are reasonable,” he told state officials, urging them to reconsider the concerns of the ag industry, and valley residents.
But after months of discourse, it has become painfully obvious the state water board is not interested in negotiating. The recent release of their Substitute Environmental Document is proof state water authorities are fixated on obtaining an additional 40 percent or more of the water flows on the Merced River in the name of fish and Delta health.
Extraordinary times, some will say, call for extraordinary measures.
Today Koehn, the vice president of the MID board, says he wants to stand tall in a new offensive in the ongoing water battle, all while helping to strengthen the finances of the district and grow its services.
He is running for re-election to keep his Division 2 seat in the Nov. 7 election. He faces challenger David Cole, a special education teacher, for the seat that represents the communities of El Nido, south Merced, downtown Merced, and parts of McSwain.
With a fresh perspective, Koehn was first elected to the board in 2012, beating longtime MID board director Gino Pedretti of El Nido. Koehn was the only non-union backed candidate to win in the big general election that year. He quickly became known as someone who was well-spoken and able to articulate MIDs initiatives and goals in a clear and thoughtful manner. He was appointed as the chairman of the finance and administration committee, and has served in that capacity for the past four years.
Koehn says his overall goals continue to include what he wanted from the start: the protection of water rights from anybody — internally or externally — trying to grab MID water in an unfair way.
“There is a constant pressure to get at, suppress and weaken MID’s water rights from outside the district, and sometimes within the district,” he told the Times in a recent interview. “We proposed the SAFE plan to improve habitat, increase flows to some degree, and make sure we time those flows to have the biggest impact. We want to be good stewards. … But the state is not interested in the SAFE plan. They want us to have less water all the time. With their plan, instead of running out of water we had in storage, let’s say, in three years of a drought, now we are out of water in a year and a half, or two years. You just can’t hold as much back. … We will always have droughts, but now the impact is seen in a much shorter cycle. … We are asking the community, stakeholders, and all of the district to get behind us for the legal fight that remains ahead.”
Koehn is a lifelong Merced County resident who grew up in the McSwain area. He graduated from Cal Poly with an ag business degree, and went on to run his own cattle company, and later represent national ag companies and their products for use in the Central Valley. Before MID, he served as a trustee and board president of the McSwain Union Elementary School District. He currently is the vice president of sales and marketing for the Fermented Nutrition Corporation based in Wisconsin. And he’s a father, with a 10-year-old fifth grader at a local school.
“I bring a perspective from my professional experiences,” he said. “I’m not a large grower or farmer. I have been in the agro-business industry for many years now. I bring to the board the perspective of interacting with different stakeholders and influencers at many different levels. I feel I bring a very balanced approach to the board. I look at things overall — like how we allocate water during a drought, how we take care of finances, how we set reserves, and how will those things ultimately impact the financial viability of the district …. Everybody wants this and that, but if the district is not viable form a financial perspective, nothing happens. You have to take care of the district.”
The board director sees part of his job as advocating for MID in high-level talks in places like San Francisco and Sacramento.
“I sat with Standard & Poor’s executives and was part of the presentation team to advocate for MID’s credit upgrade. … Lowering the cost of debt translates to more affordable water, and more affordable power and electric.”
In the same breath, however, Koehn praises the work of MID’s financial team and staff, and leaders such as General Manager John Sweigard and Finance Director Brian Stubbert. “They do a phenomenal job in making sure the finances are where they should be.”
During Koehn's term, MID took over operations (and revenue) for the Exchequer hydroelectric project that had been controlled by PG&E for years.
Readers may remember a controversial MID power project to build transmission lines south of the city to improve capacity. That was in Koehn’s district, but he’s proud to say they ended up modifying the plan in a cost-effective way to eliminate the lines some neighbors did not want in their backyards. They are still improving the southeast Merced substation, and accomplishing the objectives of the original project.
Reliable affordable power is a key component to the growth of MID, according to Koehn. “As the UC continues to grow, and as service industries to support that growth, and other businesses throughout the area continue to grow, particularly in South Merced, we want to position MID to be able to serve them with affordable power. And more energy alternatives will make Merced more attractive to businesses who are looking to invest in this area.”
With regard to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SIGMA), Koehn says the legislation is needed, but “implementation is the key.”
“I’m generally an anti-regulation guy, but you can’t keep putting more straws into the same cup,” he said. “Nobody sees this, but MID is involved with local committees and groups that will be in charge of putting the plan together to stay in control of our local groundwater and comply with these regulations … We have to make sure MID has a prominent and strong seat at that table. Our view is that nobody understands water in this area like MID.”
Finally, Koehn admits there was a lot of friction when he started on MID’s Board of Directors five years ago. He said there was a certain element on the board that butted heads with management. There was a lot of personal mudslinging, and it’s all on the public record. He did say, however, the board went about its business to address important issues, and solid decisions continue to be made.
“With the complexity of issues that lie in front of us — and the scale of the issues that lie in front of us — we absolutely need good people on the board,” he told the Times. “People of good character, but we need people who are very well informed about the workings of the district, and about the larger issues that are in front of us and will shape the future of this community for decades.”

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