Stern-faced farmers, ranchers and environmentalists packed what was supposed to be a closed-door Oakdale Irrigation District meeting Thursday afternoon.
Their presence convinced the district’s directors to publicly disclose a proposal to sell Oakdale water to the Fresno-based Westlands Water District.
Westlands is offering $400 per acre-foot for OID’s irrigation water. To free up that water during this serious drought, OID’s landowners would be paid to voluntarily fallow their land and forgo their rights to water deliveries this year.
How many acres of Oakdale land might go dry and how much water Westlands wants to buy were not stated. OID officials said they don’t know, and they stressed that the water deal is just a proposal – nothing has been approved.
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After hearing the details, the audience of more than 50 people clearly opposed the deal. Numerous objections were made to shipping water out of the region, even though doing so could financially benefit landowners and OID’s coffers.
Strong opposition also was voiced to OID pursuing surface water sales during a drought year, especially because the district is pumping all its 22 groundwater wells at maximum capacity to supplement reduced flows from New Melones Reservoir.
Board Chairman Steve Webb asked the audience for a show of hands from those who might be interested in fallowing their land this year in trade for a $1,440-per-acre payment from Westlands.
One lone landowner raised his hand.
Rather than drop the idea, though, OID directors voted 3-to-2 to mail fliers to landowners throughout the district to gauge their interest. That’s expected to happen soon because Westlands apparently wants to start buying water this spring.
Westlands, which serves parts of Fresno and Kern counties, has about 110,000 acres of permanent crops – such as nut trees – that desperately need water, OID attorney Tim O’Laughlin explained.
Westlands is willing to pay $400 per acre-foot for water from Oakdale. OID would give local landowners who fallow their property 90 percent of the proceeds. The district would keep 10 percent as an administrative fee.
OID does not meter the water it delivers to farmland within its district, but for the purposes of this deal, it would figure that every acre of fallowed pasture is voluntarily forgoing four acre-feet.
OID General Manager Steve Knell said pastures use five to seven acre-feet of water each year, so the district would save water beyond what would be sold to Westlands.
Crowd members, however, objected to the idea of sending any water out of the region. Some said that water should be offered to local farmers first. Others warned that fallowing pastures could further deplete Stanislaus County’s aquifers because irrigating land with surface water helps recharge the groundwater basin.
Several people voiced concerns about how much groundwater OID is pumping this year. They questioned why district officials contend they need to pump five times more groundwater than normal at the same time they’re negotiating to sell surface water to outsiders.
“We cannot sustain what’s going on here,” warned former Oakdale Mayor Pat Kuhn, who was one of the few nonfarmers at the meeting. Kuhn said she recently spoke to a rancher whose well went dry and to a landowner whose groundwater level had dropped 16 feet.
When it comes to preserving the region’s groundwater, director Webb said: “I’m not sure OID has a dog in that fight.”
Director Frank Clark, however, expressed concern about Stanislaus’ declining groundwater levels, and he argued against selling any water to Westlands. Clark said OID does not financially need to sell water because it has $50 million in reserves.
At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Clark argued in favor of openly discussing the Westlands water deal. The board originally had planned to talk about it privately, without revealing what was being discussed.
Clark and director Al Bairos voted to open the entire meeting to the public. But directors Webb, Jack Alpers and Herman Doornenbal voted to discuss the deal privately with Knell and attorney O’Laughlin first, and then explain what was going on to the waiting crowd.
Later in the meeting, Clark and Webb voted against sending out fliers to determine landowners’ interest in fallowing land for the Westlands deal.
Directors Bairos, Alpers and Doornenbal voted to send out fliers. Bairos said he supported that because he is interested in finding out whether water from fallowed land might be available to sell to other local farmers, rather than just to Westlands.
Comments from Alpers and Doornenbal indicated they support selling to Westlands.