Oakdale Irrigation District sets closed session to discuss water sale

jnsbranti@modbee.comJanuary 22, 2014 

— The Oakdale Irrigation District has warned area farmers the drought will shrink water deliveries this year, but OID directors will meet behind closed doors today to discuss options for selling some of Oakdale’s scarce water supply for big bucks to agencies outside the region.

The vaguely worded agenda for OID’s special 3 p.m. meeting says district directors will privately discuss the “price and terms” of Oakdale selling water to unnamed “federal and state export contractors.”

Steve Knell, district general manager, said OID is negotiating to sell water to “multiple parties south of the Delta, some all the way to Los Angeles.” He added, “It has never been our practice to list them individually.”

OID has labeled the proposed water sale as a “real property” negotiation, which it contends directors can discuss during a closed session.

OID has water rights to Sierra runoff (stored in New Melones Reservoir) and to Stanislaus River water. But the drought is expected to cut the normal flow from the reservoir in half this year.

To help make up the difference, OID revealed Tuesday that it plans to pump more than 5 billion gallons of groundwater from Stanislaus County aquifers to satisfy thirsty crops. That’s five times more groundwater pumping than normal.

Knell said OID is negotiating to sell some of the surface water it gets as part of its pre-1914 flow rights. He did not explain how much water it wants to sell or why the district would sell water at the same time it is telling local farmers that irrigation days are going to be reduced.

A source close to the public agency says OID is considering paying Oakdale pasture owners to fallow thousands of acres of land this year so it can make a multimillion-dollar water deal with the Fresno-based Westlands Water District.

Others also have heard OID has such a sale in the works.

“This concept of fallowing land (to free up irrigation water) has been talked about for about three months and – as we understood it – their partner would be Westlands,” said Tom Orvis, the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau’s governmental affairs director. “But we haven’t heard the details.”

Last spring, OID sold more than 13 billion gallons of water to drought-stressed irrigation districts on the southwest side of the San Joaquin Valley, including Westlands. But that was before it was known how dry it would be this winter.

At Tuesday’s regularly scheduled OID public meeting, Knell explained how Oakdale farmers this year will have to make due with fewer irrigation days because of the drought.

He mentioned during that meeting that there are 35,000 acres of land “that can sit out if needed” without water from OID this season. Knell indicated fallowing that land would enable OID to save water to use in case the drought continues next year.

Behind closed doors Tuesday, however, Knell and OID’s directors discussed options for selling water to those willing to pay premium prices.

Knell told The Bee that he was meeting Wednesday with “state and federal contractors” and that he would share the results of those talks with board members during today’s special closed-door meeting.

“These are challenging times, and we’ll be (having) lots of special meetings,” Knell told The Bee.

If it turns out OID wants local farmers to voluntarily fallow their land so the district can profit from selling water to Fresno farmers, Orvis predicted “that’s going to become one hell of a public perception issue.”

“In the best interest of the people here,” Orvis said, “any irrigation district should retain as much water as possible in Stanislaus County.”

Hughson farmer and Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa also voiced concern about OID exporting water.

“This is groundwater mining at its worst,” Chiesa said. He called it “disconcerting” to learn OID is considering selling large quantities of water while it is pumping so much from Stanislaus’ dwindling groundwater reserves.

The county Board of Supervisors banned groundwater mining as part of a controversial ordinance in October, but public irrigation districts such as OID were exempted from the law.

“Never did we envision this,” Chiesa said about OID pumping groundwater while simultaneously negotiating to transfer billions of gallons of surface water out of the county.

Lawyers also are raising questions about OID meeting behind closed doors to discuss water sales.

Peter Scheer, an attorney and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said a government agency should not consider water “real property.”

“Real property means dirt,” Scheer said. “If you say water is real property and apply that literally, it means (OID directors) can hold all of their meetings behind closed doors because they’re always dealing with water. I don’t think anybody ever intended that. The public has a right to know what’s going on in all government agencies.”

Especially during a drought, Scheer said, the public needs to be included. “There is no reason to go into closed session to have a discussion on whether to sell or not to sell certain water resources, whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” he said. “In California, we have a law that says those important policy questions need to be deliberated openly so the public knows what’s going on and can participate in stating their views.”

Terry Francke, founder of Californians Aware, a nonprofit group specializing in open government, said OID is violating state law by not revealing with whom it is negotiating. He said the agenda’s general description listing “federal and state export contractors” does not meet California’s Brown Act requirements to name the parties involved in negotiations.

“If we have no idea what government is doing,” Francke said, “we’re not players in the self-governance game at all.”

Today’s meeting is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. in the OID boardroom, 1205 E. F St., Oakdale. The agenda includes time for public comments before the directors go into their closed-door discussion.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley contributed to this story. Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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