Oakdale Irrigation District moves toward SF water sale

jholland@modbee.comOctober 1, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
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— The Oakdale Irrigation District board agreed Tuesday to sell a small amount of water to San Francisco next year – if the price is right, and if the winter is not too dry.

The board voted 4-1 to advance the sale, which would involve up to 2,240 acre-feet of Stanislaus River water, or 1 percent of the district’s average use.

Director Steve Webb dissented out of concern that the OID’s farmers could be left short if the two-year drought gets worse in 2014.

San Francisco has agreed to pay $112,000 for the option to buy the water. It still has to negotiate the price for each acre-foot, which OID General Manager Steve Knell will bring to his board for approval.

The contract would allow the district to suspend the sale in the event of a severe drought year, defined as less than 500,000 acre-feet flowing into New Melones Reservoir, which stores water for OID and other suppliers.

San Francisco is seeking a dry-year supplement for its Hetch Hetchy Water and Power System, which supplies Tuolumne River water to about 2.6million people in four Bay Area counties.

The city had sought this water from the Modesto Irrigation District, which also draws from the Tuolumne. The MID board dropped the idea last year after hearing concerns about the multiyear term and possible dry-year shortages for Modesto-area farmers and domestic users.

San Francisco would have paid $700 per acre foot to MID, about 70 times what its farmers pay. The high price reflected the fact that the water would be delivered even in drought years.

OID would not sell directly to the city. Instead, the district would deliver water to MID via an existing connection near Claribel Road. The Modesto district in turn would let San Francisco take an equal amount of water at the Hetch Hetchy diversion. MID would have to consent to this.

OID has water to sell thanks to conservation efforts and development of some of its acreage. Past sales have paid for upgrades to the canal system while helping keep rates low for the district’s farmers.

Knell said it is in talks about 2014 sales to parts of the western and southern San Joaquin Valley that have been hit especially hard by cutbacks from the federal Central Valley Project.

OID sold 40,000 acre-feet to this region in the spring at $100 each, earning $4 million. The South San Joaquin Irrigation District did the same with some of its Stanislaus River supply.

Also Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 for a pilot project aimed at increasing water conservation on up to 2,500 acres that now grow annual crops.

The staff will invite farmers to forgo irrigation for a year so the water can be sold to other areas. Most of the income will pay for conservation efforts on the idled fields that will reduce their consumption over the long term. The qualifying farmers also will get a payment equal to 30 percent of the sale income.

The project involves pasture and annual field crops rather than orchards or vineyards, which cannot go a year without irrigation. The conservation steps could include new pipelines that replace leaky lines or ditches, leveling the land to help the water spread efficiently, and others.

The project also could involve annual cropland that is being converted to trees and vines, which tend to use much less water.

Director Al Bairos, who voted against the project, said he would rather see the district expanding its irrigated acreage rather than idling fields.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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