Divided OID board OKs $2 million water sale

Oakdale Irrigation District board member Gail Altieri
Oakdale Irrigation District board member Gail Altieri aalfaro@modbee.com

On a 3-2 vote after a lengthy discussion about fears of eroding water rights, irrigation leaders agreed Monday to sell some Stanislaus River water in coming weeks.

Releasing 8,000 acre-feet of water will kill three birds with one stone, the Oakdale Irrigation District board majority reasoned: The deal will bring $2 million to OID, help farmers with thirsty crops on the west side of Stanislaus County and points south, and satisfy wildlife officials and environmentalists by swelling the river to help migrating fish.

Board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri, voting in the minority, noted that OID’s unique method of moving water since 2013 – technically, abandoning it upstream for buyers to claim downstream – requires no environmental review under special drought rules, so no one knows whether shipping it elsewhere hurts the groundwater table here. They also questioned whether a state water agency might look unfavorably on abandonments when revising rules on who gets how much of the precious limited resource.

“I think we’re jeopardizing our long-term water rights by continuing to make these sales,” Santos said. “When you abandon water to go someplace else without (environmental) documentation, it’s setting us up for the state to look at us like, ‘You’re abandoning water you don’t need.’ 

Altieri agreed, saying, “It’s better to lose $2 million than to jeopardize our water rights.”

They were outvoted by board members Steve Webb, Gary Osmundson and Herman Doornenbal, who said OID otherwise would miss out on a valuable opportunity to sell the water because after Friday, ownership of the water will revert to the federal government. Federal officials will release the water in fall fish flows whether OID makes money or not, the board majority said.

Board members with the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, OID’s partner on the Stanislaus, on Tuesday will review an identical proposal; together the districts would sell 16,000 acre-feet and split $4 million in proceeds.

“You can take advantage of this and get $2 million, or not take advantage and get absolutely nothing,” OID General Manager Steve Knell said. Buyers south of the Delta include five small water districts on the county’s West Side, he said.

“I think it would be silly to pass it up,” Webb said.

“We owe it to our constituents,” Doornenbal said. “This $2 million indirectly goes into their pockets (because) this keeps our rates low.”

Although OID and SSJID have been relying on drought-time exemptions from environmental review in recent years, that might not be legal because the California Environmental Quality Act requires study of total impacts adding up from several sales over time, a Sacramento law firm warned. The firm, Soluri Meserve, is suing OID to force environmental review for similar transfers under other circumstances.

Robert Frobose, an Oakdale grower who helped hire the firm, noted that the California State Water Resources Control Board could object to water abandonments skirting environmental review. Although another state agency – the Department of Water Resources – and two federal wildlife agencies have signed off on abandonments by OID and SSJID, the state water board has not. And the state water board is behind a controversial proposal to vastly increase river flow, leaving far less for farms and cities.

“If we’ve ticked them off by using this (abandonment) method to get around them, I’m concerned about our future,” Frobose said.

Contract language in Monday’s proposal says board members, after “independent review,” determine the sale is exempt from environmental rules. Santos said the board was given no documentation reflecting such an independent review, and although she arrived early for Monday’s meeting to ask, Knell provided her none.

Instead of claiming exemptions, Santos asked, why not simply comply with state law by conducting environmental studies and ink long-term contracts with buyers? That also would eliminate water-rights questions, she said.

Knell did not disagree, but said buyers – typically the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority – have not wanted long-term deals because of uncertainty from the state’s ongoing water rights restructuring.

“We’re doing the next best thing because we believe water is better protected by putting it in contracts with people who need it,” Knell said. “You’re choosing your poisons.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

Related stories from Modesto Bee