Modesto Irrigation District blocks Oakdale water sale to SF, for now

gstapley@modbee.comJanuary 23, 2014 

TLB MID 3

The Modesto Irrigation District building in downtown Modesto is seen here in 2011.

TRACY BARBUTES — Modesto Bee

  • AT A GLANCE

    The MID board meets publicly at 9 a.m. today in the last of a series of orientation meetings aimed mostly at three new board members, and will go behind closed doors to discuss lawsuits and competitor Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s request to a state agency to increase its power rates. The meeting takes place at the district office, 1231 11th St., Modesto.

— The Modesto Irrigation District, which dropped a hotly contested proposal to sell water to San Francisco two years ago, temporarily has stopped the Oakdale Irrigation District from doing the same thing.

However, MID’s blockage could be removed someday when the district finishes creating a policy addressing highly controversial water transfers.

With such a framework, MID could facilitate OID’s deal with San Francisco, “and potentially much more,” MID Board Chairman Nick Blom said last week in a “not yet” letter to OID leaders.

In light of news that OID is negotiating separate, much larger sales to wealthy water buyers to the south, Blom on Thursday said MID has not talked recently about shopping its water. But MID leaders do envision short-term sales sometime in the future, if the district can store up enough extra without hurting local farmers, Blom said.

OID has been talking about paying some of its customers to fallow their land and selling water that would have been used there to thirsty districts in the Fresno area and beyond. Because of the drought, OID might not have enough to spare from its mountain snowmelt via the Stanislaus River, but the district intends to pump more than 5 billion gallons of groundwater this year, or five times more than normal.

That could threaten the wells of nearby farms and residents. “If their plan is just to continue pumping, that’s not a good thing for anyone,” Blom said Thursday.

OID, an active player in the water transfer market, has improved its canals and other facilities with $51 million reaped in recent water sales, the district said in a “briefing paper” on its proposed deal with San Francisco.

In October, the OID board agreed to accept San Francisco’s $112,000 option, plus an undetermined fee for 730 million gallons of OID water in a one-time deal this year.

But the agreement depends on MID’s blessing because it shares a connection with San Francisco on the Tuolumne River, and OID does not. MID would give some of its allotment to the city and receive a like amount from OID through a canal connection near Albers Road and Dusty Lane, between Modesto and Waterford, and MID would get 10 percent of the option and sales revenue for its trouble, according to the OID pitch.

Similar agreements between the Oakdale and Modesto utilities date to 1917 and were used regularly to fulfill state government demands for better fish habitat in the Tuolumne from 1998 through 2010.

But this time, MID said “no,” at least for now.

MID leaders don’t want to trade their pure river water for OID’s canal water, which is tainted to some degree with tailwater, or leftovers after draining from Oakdale customers’ farms. The MID board has not been satisfied, Blom said, with OID’s assurances regarding water quality.

Further, MID is more interested in “a comprehensive agreement covering the long term” than in a one-time deal, Blom said in the letter. He also chastised OID for “inferring MID’s participation in any water transfer” at OID meetings “or with the media.”

Tom Orvis of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau said it makes sense for MID and OID to “at least explore opportunities” for cooperation in a formal framework.

On Thursday, Blom said the MID board has not talked about paying customers to fallow their land. “To me, district water is there for your district and not for you just to sell. I’d rather keep growing here and not make as much money,” he said.

OID General Manager Steve Knell could not be reached Thursday for this report. His district has sold water over the years to Stockton-area taps and to a federal agency boosting fishery flows. Last year, OID sold more than 13 billion gallons to irrigation districts on the southwest side of the San Joaquin Valley, including Fresno-based Westlands Water District. Those transfers were handled on the Stanislaus River and did not require MID permission.

Last year, OID offered to sell water to the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, and in another deal, MID agreed to sell water to TID. But all of those ideas were dropped for various reasons, including an uptick in TID groundwater pumping to augment its surface water.

MID’s proposed sale to San Francisco fell apart in 2012 amid concerns over having enough for local farmers in dry years.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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