OID suggests selling water to outsiders to subsidize district costs

The Oakdale Irrigation District hasn’t raised its water rates in 30 years, and it was obvious Tuesday that OID’s directors resent a state law requiring them to charge farmers more to irrigate.

“All of this is getting forced on us,” board Chairman Steve Webb repeatedly stated.

Virtually every other California irrigation district has complied with the Water Conservation Act of 2009, which requires farmers to pay for water based on how much they use.

But instead of complying with the statewide effort to save water, OID is suing the state government. It doesn’t think it is fair for lawmakers to require OID and its farmers to pay for the equipment needed to meter how much water each farmer receives.

“We have some of the best water rights attorneys in the state,” Webb said about OID’s chances of winning in court. “I hope it goes in our favor.”

OID charges farmers $19.50 per year per irrigated acre, no matter how much water they use. That’s by far the cheapest rate in the region, working out to only about $5 per acre-foot of water.

That’s going to change next year, Webb warned, but he said perhaps there’s a way rates won’t have to increase too much.

Rather than charging farmers to install the necessary metering equipment, the district proposes covering much of the expense by selling OID water to out-of-county buyers.

During the past 10 years, OID has sold 382,408 acre-feet of water to outsiders for $35.3 million. “The more water transfers we do, the lower the rates,” OID General Manager Steve Knell explained.

If OID doesn’t sell water to outsiders – like Fresno County’s Westlands Water District – it might have to start charging farmers a base water rate of $31.26 per year, plus $20.72 for each additional acre-foot of water they receive.

Knell said to the audience at Tuesday’s meeting that the whole point of mentioning that possible rate “was to scare you.”

But if OID can continue selling millions of dollars’ worth of water to outsiders each year, district officials calculated they may be able to charge farmers only a $25.17 base charge, plus $8.37 for each additional acre-foot of water.

At least that’s what was flashed on the projection screen during Tuesday’s meeting. Exactly how many feet of irrigation water would be included in that base rate was not detailed.

Knell declined The Modesto Bee’s request for a copy of the spreadsheets that detailed the possible water rates. “It would be unfair to print the ‘what-if’ scenarios that were shown today because those outputs may have no basis in the final rate and are speculative at best,” Knell explained after the meeting.

When the public will get a chance to see OID’s actual proposal for water rates is unclear. The board is expected to review rate options Aug. 19, then hold a public hearing Oct. 21.

An Aug. 27 item updated this story:

In a July 16 story, a reference was made to the Oakdale Irrigation District suing the state of California concerning the Water Conservation Act of 2009. That lawsuit is a test claims case that OID is involved in along with other irrigation districts. The story also referred to OID being out of compliance with the law’s water metering and volumetric pricing requirements, which were supposed to be met by July 2012. During the OID directors’ July 15 meeting, OID General Manager Steve Knell stated that his district is “out of compliance” with that state law. Knell has subsequently clarified his comments. Knell said OID has created its own compliance deadlines, and it has been complying with its self-imposed compliance dates.