Oakdale Irrigation District directors vote to reject Westlands water deal

jnsbranti@modbee.comJanuary 28, 2014 

DN Ag Premium Ed

Debbie Noda/dnoda@modbee.com Oakdale Irrigation District water passes through an automated flume gate on the Cometa lateral as distribution operator, Marc Oberkamper, opens a slide gate to deliver water to fields, May 30, 2013 in the Valley Home area.

DEBBIE NODA — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

— A proposal to pay Oakdale landowners to fallow their pastures so irrigation water could be sold to Fresno-area farmers was rejected Tuesday morning.

Oakdale Irrigation District directors voted 4-1 to reverse Thursday’s decision, which would have kept the proposed Westlands Water District deal alive.

OID directors said they changed their minds after being flooded with phone calls from Oakdale farmers and ranchers opposed to selling water to outsiders during this drought.

“I’ve been called every damn name in the book,” said Director Herman Doornenbal, who was among the board members switching their votes. Doornenbal blamed the controversy on the public not having a complete understanding of what was being proposed.

The Westlands deal wasn’t made public until Thursday afternoon, and even that disclosure hadn’t been planned. Directors had scheduled a special closed-door meeting Thursday, but that was disrupted when more than 60 upset community members showed up to find out what was going on. The OID’s attorney then explained the voluntary land-fallowing proposal to the crowd, and directors voted 3-2 to mail details about the suggested deal to the district’s landowners.

OID General Manager Steve Knell said he also had planned a series of workshops to outline the Westlands water deal and the voluntary fallowing program, but that won’t happen now.

Directors Steve Webb, Frank Clark, Al Bairos and Doornenbal voted Tuesday to reject Westlands’ offer to buy OID water at $400 per acre-foot. Director Jack Alpers dissented.

Alpers outlined how OID has sold $45 million worth of water to out-of-county agencies the past dozen years. He said those sales enabled the district to lower its water charges to Oakdale farmers, swell its budget reserves, finance capital improvements and donate money to local causes.

Last spring, for example, OID sold 40,000 acre-feet – that’s 13 billion gallons – to Westlands for $4 million. Westlands paid $100 per acre-foot then, but it is willing to pay $400 per acre-foot now.

Bairos said he decided to switch his vote about mailing out information on the Westlands fallowing proposal because his constituents “are telling me that’s not the way to go.”

“In the long haul, it would be detrimental to our community (to sell the water to Westlands),” Bairos said. “We’ve got to take care of ourselves before we help others out.”

Webb said that while the Westlands deal would have created a “windfall” for landowners who fallowed their pastures, it would have financially ruined other ag operations. Webb explained how local dairies and cattle ranchers need those pastures to feed their herds this year.

‘Out of business’

Cattleman Kenneth Krause was among those in the crowd Tuesday who agreed with Webb. “If the people I rent pastures from can get more money (from Westlands) by fallowing their ground, I’m out of business,” Krause warned.

Clark said fallowing Oakdale land so Fresno farmers could buy the water would hurt the entire region. He said local hardware and agricultural supply stores would take financial hits, along with “fertilizer sales, veterinarian supplies and services, livestock haulers, farm employees, and on and on.”

“Water is the fuel that powers our economic engine,” Clark said. “Without it, our local economy could be irreparably damaged.”

Several community members at Tuesday’s meeting voiced concern about OID’s nonstop pumping of groundwater from 22 Oakdale wells. They asked why the district is drawing down the community’s aquifer while negotiating to sell water to Fresno.

“That’s water mining,” said Oakdale cattle rancher and almond grower Deanne Dalrymple.

Knell disagreed. He offered a description of how the groundwater the district is pumping is not the same water it would have sold to Westlands.

And though the water sale is off, OID’s pumps will not stop. “We’re going to pump all we can this year,” Webb confirmed.

OID also plans to drain down all its water reserves from New Melones Reservoir this year to help compensate for the reduced Sierra runoff caused by the drought.

Webb said where OID gets its water and where that water goes will be explained at a future board meeting.

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

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