OID water exports up in the air

Drought and a legal threat have combined to stall the Oakdale Irrigation District’s controversial idea of selling water to out-of-county buyers.

Also, water officials will explain at a March 7 meeting in Copperopolis why drought could prompt them to drain Tulloch Lake.

At its Tuesday meeting next week, the OID board was expected to finalize contracts between more than 110 of its growers and Fresno-area buyers. But the drought has raised questions about flow requirements for the Stanislaus River and endangered fish that could affect OID’s supply.

“We’re working with state and federal agencies. It’s consuming our attention right now and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said OID General Manager Steve Knell. “The world is in flux.”

The OID board in January agreed to sell water for five years to the Westlands Water District for $400 an acre-foot, or more than $3 million a year for about 8,000 acre-feet. Participating farmers would get 95 percent of the money – 20 percent in cash and 75 percent to be used on efficiency upgrades.

Critics say it’s unwise to enrich a few while exporting a precious resource.

A law firm hired by former board member Louis Brichetto sent a letter to OID last week contending that the sale could cause “significant environmental effects” and first must be subject to formal studies. The district then sent notices to farmers saying the sale had stalled because of an unspecified “private landowner’s environmental challenge,” and advising that the board would review options at Tuesday’s board meeting.

On Wednesday, Knell characterized the legal threat as a nuisance, adding that the drought has called off all bets. The district is in “a holding pattern,” he said, until state and federal agencies decide how the lack of snowmelt might affect their approach to reviving the Stanislaus’ salmon population.

A similar issue led the OID board last week to warn people near Tulloch that it could be reduced to a puddle as early as July. The reservoir is popular for boating, fishing and camping, and it supplies tap water to thousands of people in waterfront communities. Some called for state and federal intervention, prompting U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, in a Modesto Bee interview, to rail on environmental interests at the expense of people.

On Tuesday, OID and a sister district announced they will host a town hall meeting to explain “regulatory requirements” affecting Tulloch’s water level. The notice is silent on recreation and neighbors’ quality of life but notes that the reservoir’s mission is “to provide irrigation water to downstream users,” or farmers, and also to generate electricity, which the districts provide on a wholesale basis to Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

The reservoir is operated by Tri-Dam, a partnership of OID and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. The community meeting will be held at 10 a.m. March 7 at 920 Black Creek Drive in Copperopolis.

OID’s board meeting begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday in its chamber at 1205 E. F St., Oakdale.

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

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