OID manager defends defunct water sale plan

02/03/2014 5:24 PM

02/03/2014 6:44 PM

The Oakdale Irrigation District did not get a chance to show the possible benefits of selling water from fallowed pastures to a district about 50 miles south, General Manager Steve Knell said Monday.

He defended the controversial plan, which the OID board scrapped a week ago, at a meeting of the Stanislaus County Agricultural Advisory Board.

OID had planned to ask its pasture owners to give up water deliveries for 2014 in exchange for 90 percent of the sale income. Knell said pasture has relatively high losses to runoff and seepage compared with orchards and other crops that take up water efficiently.

Most of the freed-up water would have gone to the Westlands Water District, west of Fresno, but some would have been retained to help OID deal with the drought, he said.

The OID board voted 4-1, with Jack Alpers dissenting, to drop the proposal, after hearing from people concerned about the drought and the district’s increased use of groundwater this year.

“I think it’s a missed opportunity,” Knell said, “but it’s this type of out-of-the-box thinking that needs to go forward.”

The Agricultural Advisory Board, which advises county supervisors and staff members on agricultural issues, includes several farmers, government representatives and other people.

Member Sherman Boone, a retired almond grower in the Denair area, said he did not like that the OID board had discussed the issue in closed session. “OID is taking our water out of our aquifer, and that’s a concern to farmers, especially in a drought year,” he said.

Knell said the pumping this year is small compared with the main supply from the Stanislaus River, and it is part of a plan that includes recharging groundwater in wet years.

He said OID at first did not plan to sell surface water to other districts because of the extremely dry conditions, but Westlands offered a high price of $400 for each acre-foot that might be obtained from fallowing pasture.

A board majority voted Jan. 23 to query landowners, but the idea died five days later. Some of the opposition came from people who said beef producers need as much irrigated pasture as they can get because of scant rainfall on their rangeland this winter.

Knell said the concern about water going elsewhere should be directed at state and federal agencies that propose to increase flows permanently in the lower Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to benefit fish.

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