Farmers asked for thoughts on OID irrigation water cap

Irrigation leaders will consider capping water deliveries this year for the first time, and want to hear what farmers think during an April 7 public hearing.

Feedback surely will depend on particulars yet to be announced, such as the maximum water available for Oakdale Irrigation District farmers accustomed to using as much water as they want, and what penalties they might face for breaking the rules. Those details will be released in the next three weeks.

The change is a reaction to the four-year drought, but the capping policy could endure in future years.

“We have to take extraordinary measures to get through this drought,” OID General Manager Steve Knell told the board Tuesday.

He pitched the capping idea as an alternative to dry-season rules adopted seven years ago but never put into practice, including fines and potential termination of water rights for flood-irrigating farmers who let tailwater run off the far side of a field. That would require a new level of policing 2,900 agricultural accounts and measuring tailwater, which could prove difficult for OID staff, while capping would result simply in the district delivering no more water after a certain amount, with no regard for tailwater.

Board members on Tuesday morning seemed willing to consider a cap but also wanted ideas on curbing waste. Some farmers have been known to be inattentive, even flooding neighboring properties, board Chairman Steve Webb said.

“It’s in our best interest to keep a watchful eye over all our constituents,” board member Al Bairos said. “We have to be tight and make sure no one gets caught sleeping at the valves.”

Board member Frank Clark agreed, saying, “We have to make sure all customers are held accountable, period.”

The board asked for flexibility on growers transferring water shares among one another, or among different plots owned by the same farmer.

“I think we need to allow people all the options they can possibly scare up,” board member Herman Doornenbal said.

Bairos said capping could prompt thievery, once maxed-out farmers realize they’ve got no more water coming.

Growers elsewhere have lived with caps, also called water allocations or allotments, for decades. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts expect to provide their customers with about 16 inches per acre this year, while the Merced Irrigation District and parts of the West Side expect zero river water because of the prolonged drought.

OID’s partner on the Stanislaus River, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, last week imposed a first-ever cap of 36 inches per parcel this year. The partners have warned thousands of people around Lake Tulloch that it could be reduced to a puddle this summer, and the OID board put on hold plans to sell surplus water to Fresno-area buyers.

The Modesto Bee will publish the OID staff’s proposal on capping water deliveries and accompanying rules as they become available. The April 7 public hearing will begin at 9 a.m. in the board chamber at 1205 E. F St. in Oakdale. A final vote could be taken April 21, or at a special meeting yet to be scheduled.

Also Tuesday, Knell said a board vacancy created by the resignation of Jack Alpers attracted applications from Albert Deniz and Gary Osmundson, who could be interviewed April 7 if Stanislaus County election officials verify their eligibility to serve. The board’s appointee for the area southwest of Oakdale will serve until the November election, and that winner would finish the remaining two years of Alpers’ term. He did not attend seven months of board meetings before stepping aside for “serious health issues” in February.

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