Less than one month after the Oakdale Irrigation District informally turned down a request I made for annexation to the district for new orchard development, I read the front page news that the OID board is seriously considering shipping water out of the area to serve customers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I had to drive right back over to the OID office in Oakdale, look up at the big sign over the building and confirm the name of the agency. Yep, still the same Oakdale Irrigation District.
And let there be no doubt. OID is strictly that, an agricultural irrigation district. It does not provide electricity and power to residences and businesses. It was never meant to be a retail water provider. No, it is just that, an irrigation district.
My meeting was with Steve Knell, the general manager, and I explained that I was representing a major farming family and company that had property in the heart of the normal service area. They were wishing to annex to the district to facilitate the development of some prospective orchards.
Sorry, he said. "You are in our southern service area and we have no remaining capacity to serve south of the Stanislaus River."
I pointed out to Knell that one of its major pipelines runs directly through the property in question. "Nope. Others in that area are also asking and we just cannot service any of you at this point, or in the foreseeable future."
Yet it has water to sell to Bay Area nonagricultural users. Simply amazing!
The justification the district gives for considering water sales is that millions of dollars of improvements and upgrades must be made to the system.
OK. If sales must be made, then how about allocating those funds to areas that would allow farmers within the district to annex and use the water for agricultural purposes?
Annexation is not cheap. The district charges more than $2,000 per acre for any new areas which are taken into service. And in dry years it makes no guarantees that the water allocations can or will be met. It all depends on the weather.
The other sticker in all of this is the idea that, at least in the MID negotiations, San Francisco was adamant that water must be delivered every year, be it a wet winter or drought. No such guarantees have been made for farmers, and the irony here is that the farmers are precisely what irrigation districts are all about. Thus, in a dry year, San Francisco gets its water and farmers get shut out.
No one wants to waste good fresh mountain water. No one wants to deny thirsty Bay Area residents access to quality water. But priorities seem to be tipping toward the almighty dollar, and not to the traditional and necessary use for the agriculture that sustains our valley communities.
It is time for these irrigation district boards to step back and recognize that they only exist because of farmers and farmers are the backbone of our fragile economy. Priorities must be established and funds derived from sales out of our area must be used to augment and broaden the ability of the district to serve its farmer members.
Hagerty is an Oakdale real estate developer active in community nonprofits. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.