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Merced Irrigation District Centennial

Nearly 100 years ago a group of Merced County landowners formed an irrigation district and less than a decade later followed that with a new dam to save this area's precious water resources.

The centennial this November of the Merced Irrigation District is being celebrated through a special exhibit at the Merced County Courthouse Museum in Merced.

And the current manager of the MID is in awe of the groundbreaking efforts of these visionary pioneers to create a multi-pronged agency that now provides a wide range of essential services to this area.

John Sweigard has been the MID general manager for almost 10 years. He marvels at all it took to create the fledgling irrigation district nearly a century ago.

"I appreciate the heritage. The founders had the foresight, knowledge and will to navigate the water rights system and to design and construct something as massive as the dam and a system of canals and tunnels to move water, our lifeblood, in 1920," Sweigard says.

MID now is a complex agency with 175 employees that provides irrigation, reliable and low-cost hydroelectric power, parks and recreation facilities and a sprawling storm drainage system for the county. 

"They (founders) were pretty amazing people," Sweigard says. "There were no computers then. The engineers who came up with the concept were pretty amazing. It took an incredible set of skills back then, using only slide rules and hand computation, to come up with the dam and hydro project. It's mind-blowing actually."

The Merced County Historical Society is heading up a community-wide exhibit and celebration of MID achievements. The exhibit at the historic 1850s-vintage courthouse in downtown Merced will open to the public beginning Nov. 7, coinciding with voters' approval of formation of the MID. 

Sweigard estimates it would easily take $10 billion in today's dollars to duplicate the MID system from scratch. And it would be a massive undertaking. 

Sweigard started out with the MID as a ditch tender for two summers while he was attending college. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1996 with a bachelor of science degree in bioresearch and agricultural engineering. 

"I view our job and that of the board not to screw up an amazingly intelligent thing folks did 100 years ago. Our view is not to mess that up and not to give it away and protect it. My responsibility is to ensure that it's not squandered," Sweigard stresses.

As general manager, he says he spends 50 percent of his time with legal, regulatory matters and defending the district's valuable resources from the state and other agencies that would like to take it over. He categorizes flood control efforts as an "environmental push-pull" and a constant area of concern. 

"I hope our descendants don't take anything for granted and always be on guard. The biggest threat we face is from the state and others who want our water rights and to take over our resources if they can," Sweigard says.

Sarah Lim, courthouse museum director, says the museum is very excited about the exhibit. There is a rich history to share with local residents and visitors about the pioneers in irrigation, what she terms a story of vision, trial, persistence and triumph.

Once it was formed in November 1919, MID purchased the irrigation system of the Crocker Huffman Land and Water Co. and constructed the original Exchequer Dam on the Merced River. In the late 1960s a larger New Exchequer Dam was built on that site, which created a bigger reservoir, Lake McClure, for local water supply and flood control. 

MID now provides irrigation water to about 2,200 growers in eastern Merced County. In 1996 the district created the non-profit public electricity network that serves about 10,000 residential and commercial customers with low-cost electrical power.