The Bee’s editorial board stands by its comments of Feb. 22, in which we examined the recent actions of Oakdale Irrigation District.
OID general manager Steve Knell’s rebuttal appears nearby. His comments require that we take this opportunity to respond.
▪ Knell cites the volume of groundwater pumped by other irrigation districts. Both Modesto and Turlock IDs have large areas at much lower elevation where groundwater is closer to the surface; pumping is often required to avoid drowning the crops. Last year, both pumped vast additional amounts. But as nearby residential wells went dry, both eventually curtailed pumping until the cause of the failures was determined.
▪ Knell is right, Director Jack Alpers rendered 14 years of service during which his was an often independent voice. But no plans were publicly discussed about how to handle his absence as it stretched to seven months. Residents were left in the dark.
▪ Knell called our comments about the reaction to draining Lake Tulloch a “tirade.” We noted that many residents of Lake Tulloch attended a meeting of the Tri-Dam Project and were alarmed and angry, but we made no editorial comment. If we had, we would have said Lake Tulloch’s water has far greater value irrigating crops in Ripon, Manteca and Oakdale than sitting in the foothills. But don’t expect lakeside residents to be overjoyed. As OID contemplates draining Tulloch’s 56,000 acre-feet, it is trying to sell 8,000 acre-feet.
▪ Instead of what Knell called a “negative focus,” we described OID’s plan to use water sale proceeds to fund on-farm improvements as “laudable.” Spending roughly $2.4 million on projects to provide better irrigation and water delivery will create jobs. It’s also important as the state considers reclaiming water from any agency not using it wisely.
Our problem is with the destination of the water Oakdale sells. While keenly aware of the devastation occurring on South Valley farms, we also are aware of impacts closer to home. Nothing in state law forbids a direct transfer (i.e., sale) from one district to another. Selling to nearby districts such as Stockton East, Del Puerto or Patterson would keep the economic benefits in our region.
▪ Knell suggests that exceeding the $400 price per acre-foot would be gouging. In 2014, it was Alpers who noted OID should get as much for its water as it could. Was it gouging when OID considered San Francisco’s offer of $700?
Knell’s last comment is puzzling. He suggests The Bee is acting on behalf of some unnamed organization or person who wants OID’s water. Fascinating, but we’re not sure how that would work or why. No one at The Bee farms, owns farmland or needs 2.6 billion gallons of water. And if he’s talking about Louis Brichetto, who farms just outside the district, that doesn’t work, either. We believe all water sales should go through agencies, not individuals.
Our editorial was meant to help OID see how its actions in its Feb. 18 meeting and the previous groundwater pumping appear to many people. The optics don’t change even when you look deeper.