Oakdale Irrigation District weighs historic water cap

Because of prolonged drought, irrigation leaders on Tuesday morning will consider capping the amount of water delivered this year to farms around Oakdale and east of Riverbank.

Oakdale Irrigation District’s staff has not suggested a maximum amount, preferring instead to seek direction from the board. If board members agree Tuesday, an April 7 public hearing would be scheduled to hear from farmers, followed by a final vote probably a week later.

Capped water shares – a fact of life in most irrigation districts – are a novelty on the Stanislaus River. OID’s partner on the Stanislaus, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, last week opted for a 36-inch-per-acre limit for its customers around Escalon, Ripon and Manteca.

To the south, the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts expect to provide their growers with about 16 inches this year, and the Merced Irrigation District and parts of the West Side expect zero river water because of the four-year drought.

Looking toward this season, the OID board in November raised water prices for the first time in more than 20 years while changing the district’s rate structure. Rather than paying a flat price for unlimited quantities, OID customers will pay $27 per acre plus what’s called volumetric pricing, or a set amount depending on how much water a farmer takes for different crops. The new rates would be phased in over two or three years, OID said at the time.

Meanwhile, hopes for a wet winter fizzled. The OID board recently issued a formal drought declaration, put on hold plans to sell surplus water to Fresno-area buyers at $400 an acre-foot, and warned thousands of people around Lake Tulloch that OID and SSJID could reduce the reservoir to a puddle this summer. OID balked, however, at having farmers pay a $6.10-per-acre drought surcharge this year, saying they would revisit the idea April 21.

Last year, OID leaders imposed “level two” measures for coping with dry years, including longer rotations, refusing to sell water to farmers just outside the district and pumping groundwater to augment river supplies. The district’s dry-year strategy includes level three measures in case things get really dire, including requiring that farmers use every drop delivered to them rather than letting some run off the far side of a field, fining violators and terminating repeat offenders’ water rights.

But a staff report, noting that the huge New Melones Reservoir could wind up empty this year, says even level three won’t go far enough. “Staff believes that an allocation of water to each farm gate, one that provides a uniform and defined inch limit, is necessary,” the report says.

Tuesday’s OID board meeting will start at 9 a.m. in the chamber at 1205 E. F St., Oakdale. For more information, go to www.oakdaleirrigation.com/files/Agenda%2003-17-15.pdf.

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