April 2, 2013

Oakdale Irrigation District OKs water sale for West Side farmers

The Oakdale Irrigation District board voted Tuesday to sell water to help West Side farmers for one year and to permanently serve about 7,200 acres just east of its boundary.

The 5-0 votes came with no objections from the audience. The eastward annexation still needs approval from the Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission, possibly in July.

The district will sell 40,000 acre-feet of its Stanislaus River water to the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority, made up of numerous irrigation districts from the Tracy area to Fresno County, and the California Department of Water Resources.

The water, combined with an equal amount approved by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District board, will help several West Side districts deal with a sharp cutback in federal deliveries because of drought and fish protections.

Sending the water down the Stanislaus will boost spring flows for young salmon heading out to sea, OID General Manager Steve Knell said. The water will end up in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where huge state and federal pumps pull out supplies for the West Side districts.

The water will cost $100 per acre-foot, much more than what the OID and SSJID farmers pay but not unusual for drought-stressed districts on the West Side. The contract runs to Dec. 1.

OID board member Steve Webb joined in the vote after getting assurances that the sale would not threaten water supplies for OID farmers or reduce hydroelectric generation upstream at Tulloch Reservoir, which makes money for the district.

"I'd like to help the people on the West Side, but at the same time, I'd like to keep a guarantee of water," he said.

The OID has rights to up to 300,000 acre-feet from the Stanislaus each year, but Knell said actual use is about 220,000 to 230,000, leaving water available for sale outside the district.

"We have a lot of buffer," he said.

The district has been a key player in the water transfer market, where agencies with strong river rights and adequate supplies sell to areas that are short.

Two such arrangements, totaling about 40,000 acre-feet per year, recently came to an end. One was with the Stockton East Water District for domestic use. The other was with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to boost Stanislaus flows for fish.

The OID has used water transfer income to upgrade its canal system, including conservation projects that make more water available for sale.

The district also is negotiating with San Francisco for a dry-year backup for next year. The city tried to do a longer sale with the Modesto Irrigation District, but the plan was dropped in September after protests from people concerned about Modesto-area shortages.

And the OID is working on a long-term sale to Brisbane, a tiny city just south of San Francisco.

The San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority is made up of 29 agencies on the West Side and in parts of San Benito and Santa Clara counties.

Much of this acreage is projected to get only 20 percent of its contracted water this year from the federal Central Valley Project. Farmers could have to fallow some fields if they cannot get supplemental water from wells or transfers.

Tuesday's other vote involved Trinitas LLC, which is developing almond and walnut orchards in the hilly ground near Knights Ferry in northeastern Stanilaus County.

Trinitas would pay $2,600 per acre to annex to the district, then yearly fees for water. This includes a $19.50 flat fee per acre and $55 for each acre-foot used. The acre-foot charge would rise 1.5 percent per year.

The OID could suspend the deliveries during drought, when Trinitas would have to rely on its wells.

The supply also could be reduced during the summer of any year if demand overtaxes the capacity of the district's South Main Canal.

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

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