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Drought could spur draining of Tulloch Lake

If winter weather doesn’t return soon with a vengeance, Tulloch Lake – a popular fishing and boating spot between Oakdale and Jamestown, and one of California’s few reservoirs lined with thousands of homes – might look more like a puddle by July.

Draining the foothill lake is one option available to the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which haven’t resorted to that drought-coping measure in more than 20 years. The OID board on Tuesday agreed to start warning people, just in case.

“We don’t know what Mother Nature’s going to bring us,” said Steve Knell, OID’s general manager.

In other news, the board majority decided in coming weeks to recruit and appoint a temporary replacement for outgoing board member Jack Alpers.

OID leaders also approved contract language enabling more than 110 farmers to sell water for more than $3 million to out-of-county buyers. The board is expected to consider specific contracts in March.

The plan is moving ahead despite a late legal challenge brought by former board member Louis Brichetto, whose Sacramento law firm sent a letter Monday contending that exporting water could cause “significant environmental effects” and must first be subject to formal studies.

Brichetto had urged the board to sell surplus water to others in this area. His attorney, Howard “Chip” Wilkins, said in the letter, “As long as OID is pumping groundwater to serve its customers, any purported ‘surplus’ surface water is illusory.” The district pumped a record 17,000 acre-feet last year, in the third year of drought.

The board on Tuesday also reviewed contract language with the buyer, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, whose many clients include the Westlands Water District of Fresno County. The buyer would pay $400 per acre-foot for about 8,000 acre-feet, with participating farmers getting 95 percent of the money – 20 percent in cash and 75 percent to be used in efficiency upgrades.

Board Chairman Steve Webb asked staff to insert a cancellation option allowing OID to back out, in case the district becomes desperate for that 8,000 acre-feet. “I think we need an offramp,” Webb said. “I would feel more comfortable (with one).”

Knell predicted that the district will provide enough water for most farmers to get by “with some pain,” but not much left should 2016 prove dry as well. New Melones Reservoir, OID’s main storage lake, has only 42 percent of its average for this time of year.

“Saving water in New Melones is fruitless (if) they use it anyway,” Webb said, referring to state and federal regulators looking out for the needs of fish and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The district is in ongoing negotiations with agencies on various levels, said Tim O’Laughlin, the board’s attorney.

Draining Tulloch, O’Laughlin said, would allow more water to be kept behind the much deeper New Melones Dam, keeping it colder to benefit salmon and other fish. That could free up as much as 25,000 acre-feet for OID farmers, plus an identical amount for SSJID, its Tri-Dam partner on the Stanislaus River.

When confronted with policies dramatically affecting their waterfront properties, Tulloch homeowners typically interact with Tri-Dam leaders. They will meet at 9 a.m. Thursday in the OID boardroom at 1205 E. F St., Oakdale.

“We need to put them on notice right now, so they can’t say they never heard about this,” O’Laughlin said.

“Get that letter out as soon as you can,” board member Frank Clark said.

Other lakes on the Stanislaus – Donnells, Beardsley, Lyons and Spicer – are also sure to be low this year, O’Laughlin said.

Knell told the OID board that the drought could prompt more drastic measures, including $1,500 fines or loss of water rights if farmers let so-called tailwater drain off orchards and fields rather than capturing the flow of flood irrigation with berms or other barriers. That could save about 40,000 acre-feet, Knell said.

Also, if the board agrees, water would arrive no more frequently than every two weeks, conserving about 10,000 acre-feet; most years, rotations get as short as 10 days when the summer heats up.

At its March 3 meeting, the board will be asked to approve measures combating drought for its 2,900 farming accounts, Knell said.

Alpers, 79, a board member for 13 years, has not attended a meeting since July and cited “serious health issues” in a resignation letter. A successor will be elected in November to finish the last two years of his term.

Clark said the board has managed to get by for several months with only four members and argued against appointing a stand-in because doing so might provide an unfair advantage on the November ballot. But board member Al Bairos said Alpers’ District 5 area southwest of Oakdale will have gone without representation for more than a year, and Webb noted that the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors could appoint someone in 60 days if OID leaders take a pass. Clark was outvoted 3 to 1.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.

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