Oakdale Irrigation District may drain its water reserves, pump groundwater and fallow land

jnsbranti@modbee.comJanuary 21, 2014 

— The Oakdale Irrigation District should weather this year’s drought fairly well, but doing so may require draining its stored water reserves, pumping five times more groundwater than normal and fallowing farmland.

OID directors were updated Tuesday on how the district will cope if it doesn’t start storming soon.

One option: Paying farmers to fallow up to 35,000 acres of agricultural land around Oakdale so the irrigation district would not have to deliver water to them. Exactly how that would work, how much it would cost and where that saved water would end up was not explained to the public.

Board members, however, met in closed session to discuss selling water to San Francisco and to “federal and state export contractors.” Where those water exporters are located was not disclosed.

Rather than see scarce water sold to outsiders, third-generation Stanislaus County farmer Gary Alldrin requested he be allowed to eventually start buying OID water to irrigate 2,000 acres of new almond orchards near Oakdale.

The board rejected Alldrin’s annexation proposal, noting that there are numerous requests from farmers to join the district.

Director Jack Alpers repeatedly suggested that OID could sell its irrigation water for far more to outside agencies than it could to farmers like Alldrin. Alpers did not specify who might want to buy Oakdale’s water, but he said outsiders might be willing to pay “seven times the price” local farmers pay for irrigation water.

General Manager Steve Knell warned that this year’s drought could cause dire water shortages statewide: “This is an epic dry period in California and we have to look at doing epic things.” Knell didn’t explain what epic plans the district is considering.

During the public portion of the meeting, Knell said OID is in relatively good shape because it has the first right to rainwater and Sierra snowmelt flowing into the New Melones Reservoir. It also has about 72,000 acre-feet of water stored there from previous water surplus years.

“We’re going to need that conservation account to make it this year,” Knell said. “I think we’re going to come out OK.”

In a normal year, the district would get 300,000 acre-feet from New Melones, but Knell predicted only about 150,000 acre-feet plus the 72,000 in reserve will be available this year.

To help make up the difference, Knell said, “every one of our 22 (groundwater) pumps are running full speed ahead right now.”

Those pumps are tapping into Stanislaus County’s aquifer, which is the same source relied on for drinking water throughout the region. Repeated scientific studies have shown the county’s groundwater levels are dropping, and there have been numerous reports of domestic wells going dry around Oakdale.

Knell said OID is selling that groundwater to local farmers for $30 per acre-foot, which is about what it costs the district to pump the water. That price works out to about 9 cents per 1,000 gallons of water.

Meanwhile, water is becoming so scarce in Stanislaus that OID is considering using treated wastewater from the city of Oakdale for agricultural purposes. The board of directors agreed to launch the first phase of a study into how that might work.

The board also agreed to nominate one of its members, Al Bairos Jr., to Stanislaus County’s new Water Advisory Committee. That 21-member committee, which has yet to be selected, will consider what should be done about the over-drafting of groundwater in the county.

Applications for that committee are being accepted through Friday by the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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