State water plan is ‘idiocy,’ OID official says

Oakdale Irrigation District canal at Two-Mile Bar Recreation Area
Oakdale Irrigation District canal at Two-Mile Bar Recreation Area jjardine@modbee.com

Members of an often-divided irrigation board joined together Wednesday in a united vote condemning a state proposal to reduce amounts of water normally used for farming.

“It’s a water grab under the guise of preserving a fish population that is not sustainable,” said Linda Santos, an Oakdale Irrigation District board member. And at least for once, all other board members agreed.

I don’t see a team. I see hostility.

Carol Doud, audience member

The State Water Resources Control Board recently circulated a draft plan that would roughly double flows in the Tuolumne and Merced rivers to benefit fish, instead of retaining that water in reservoirs for agriculture. The idea has drawn widespread scorn in the Valley, with officials and people from all walks of life saying it would turn the economy topsy-turvy.

“OID and our fellow irrigation districts will not succumb to the idiocy of the state’s water plan,” Steve Knell, the district’s general manager, wrote in a monthly newsletter. “It is economically crushing to our region, it is nonsensical in its logic and it is an outright water grab on our future, our livelihoods and our heritage.”

The proposal would not affect the Stanislaus River – the water source for OID and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District – as much as other rivers, because different regulations already require more fish flow on the Stanislaus. OID estimates its annual allotment would go down about 25 percent in normal years.

On paper, that doesn’t seem like Armageddon: In the water year that ended Sept. 30, OID – with no cap on water available to its growers, and after selling 50,500 acre-feet of surplus water to outside buyers – ended up using only 78 percent of the amount to which it was entitled. The remaining 22 percent reverted to the federal government in accord with long-standing legal agreements.

This is a big issue.

Steve Knell, OID general manager

“For OID, the water hit is survivable but the hit to its revenue stream is not,” a staff report said, predicting a yearly loss of up to $8 million which could be covered by charging customers many times what they now pay. “That would make a lot of crops in our area unprofitable to farm,” the report said.

OID customers this year also started paying higher prices approved in late 2014, although rates remain among the lowest around.

“It’s important for us to use all our water,” said OID operations manager Eric Thorburn. That’s why the board earlier this year agreed to continue delivering water until the end of October – knowing that whatever amount is used this month gets counted against next year’s allotment. And OID’s 2017 water season will start in early March, perhaps three or four weeks before farmers in Modesto and Turlock receive surface water.

Board-level acrimony was on people’s minds Wednesday.

Carol Doud, a frequent attendee, distributed cookies formed to resemble crows, suggesting that the board majority eat crow after losing a legal battle. The majority had sued to keep Santos and board member Gail Altieri from attending some closed-door strategy sessions involving a fallowing lawsuit for more than three months, but a judge last week reversed that decision.

We all need to go home and look in the mirror, because it starts with the guy looking back at us.

Gary Osmundson, OID board

“It would be nice if we could put the hostility and incivility behind us,” Doud told the board members, suggesting they hire a facilitator to help them play nice.

“I agree 100 percent,” board member Gary Osmundson said. “We all need to get along. I would guess everyone in the room is guilty of not being cordial. We need to go home and tell ourselves, ‘Let’s get along.’ We’ve got a great district here. Let’s protect the district.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390