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Documentary well worth the cost

POSTED February 7, 2012 10:46 p.m.

The Turlock Irrigation District's new historical documentary, “The Irrigationist,” looks to tell a story worth hearing – but at what cost?

It's hard to imagine anyone taking issue with the basic premise of the film, commissioned to celebrate the district's 125th anniversary.

Without the Turlock Irrigation District, there would be no water. With no water, there would be no Turlock – just look to some dying south Valley communities for proof.

Essentially, the district's history is Turlock's history. And it's a history which goes unnoticed by many.

The district predates the City of Turlock by 21 years.  TID's La Grange Dam is 15 years older than Turlock. And the visionary Turlock Irrigation District was the very first irrigation district in the state.

It's a story worth telling, the story of a group of farmers who decided to stand up, to fight back against nature, and to turn this region into the home of the world's most bountiful farmlands.

But shortly after hearing about “The Irrigationist,” most people next hear the film's price tag – $219,200 – and promptly forget about the wonderful tale the film will tell.

The cost seems astonishing, even obscene at first glance. Especially so in this high-unemployment, low-income region.

Per the U.S. Census Bureau, only 1.5 percent of Turlock households earned more than $200,000 last year. The median household income – $39,050 – represents less than a fifth of the movie's cost.

It's also far more than TID spent to celebrate its 100th anniversary. In 1987, the district commissioned a historical book at a cost of $45,660. That translates into about $90,000 in today's dollars, or less than half of “The Irrigationist's” cost.

Perhaps making matters worse, a 4 percent TID electric rate increase just went into effect. Further 4 percent rate increases have already been approved for the next two years.

Outrage at the district “raising rates to film a movie” is warranted, certainly, but it's important to put The “Irrigationist's” cost in perspective.

The district funded the film over the past three years, the first payment coming in 2010 – before the rate increase. Spread over three years, the cost becomes a more palatable $73,000 per year.

Spreading that cost across TID's 98,000-plus accounts means each account paid less than 75 cents per year toward “The Irrigationist.” That's less than the average household pays in taxes dedicated to the Stanislaus County Library every month – $1.66.

And, to be fair, “The Irrigationist's” $219,200 price tag pales in comparison to the Turlock City Council's $2.8 million 2009 decision to resurface Turlock High School's track and install an artificial turf field.

It's all right to be upset at the expenditure. I agree that frivolous government spending should be quashed.

But $73,000 per year is a drop in the bucket to an institution the size of TID, which posted revenues of more than $300 million last year.

Sure, those relatively tiny expenditures add up. But it's important to pick your battles.

I can't help but think this lasting historical documentary of our region was well worth my own $2 contribution.

To contact Alex Cantatore, attend the Feb. 24 media-only preview screening of “The Irrigationist.” Or attend the free public showings at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Feb. 25 – Cantatore may like it so much, he opts to see it twice.

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