OID could sue over water supply

The Stanislaus River passes through Ripon on Tuesday. With a water deal not yet approved, U.S. officials plan to release more water from New Melones Dam to aid Stanislaus River fish.
The Stanislaus River passes through Ripon on Tuesday. With a water deal not yet approved, U.S. officials plan to release more water from New Melones Dam to aid Stanislaus River fish. aalfaro@modbee.com

A drought-fueled battle pitting people against fish over the Stanislaus River could wind up in court.

Oakdale Irrigation District leaders described the struggle Tuesday to a boardroom full of worried farmers who began irrigating three weeks ago with no idea how much water they’re entitled to this year –and they won’t find out for two more weeks. The small amount of water stored behind New Melones Dam, which they were counting on, was expected to begin diminishing at midnight Tuesday as officials release more water, swelling the Stanislaus to benefit fish.

The latest surge, called a pulse flow, was not envisioned in a compromise recently hammered out between local leaders and federal officials. But state water officials have stalled approving the deal, leaving federal officials feeling they had no choice but to maintain the status quo.

“What if we tell them to go to hell?” OID board member Frank Clark said at Tuesday’s meeting. “All they can do is sue you.”

Or, OID and its partner on the Stanislaus, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, could sue them.

“OID is prepared to go to court, if necessary, to defend its legal right to water stored at New Melones,” a news release reads.

The districts contend that a 1988 agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gives them legal rights to 600,000 acre-feet of mountain snowmelt captured each year behind the dam, one of California’s largest. OID and SSJID split the water to feed 120,000 acres of crops, and SSJID also delivers treated tap water to 200,000 people in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

But New Melones’ water level is at only 23 percent of capacity, and this week’s storm was not expected to add much.

Part of the deal requires OID and SSJID to tighten their belts and use only 450,000 acre-feet, or 75 percent of normal. The SSJID board this year has announced its first caps on farm deliveries, and OID leaders were expected to do the same Tuesday – until state officials refused to approve the deal.

The compromise, embraced by state and congressional representatives, would relax fish flows while retaining enough water in New Melones – 115,000 acre-feet – to help fish in the fall, after irrigation season. But last week, the California State Water Resources Control Board suggested that New Melones retain 225,000 acre-feet by Oct. 1.

Doing that would reduce the districts’ shared allotment to 340,000 acre-feet, or 57 percent of normal – a disastrous scenario for farmers used to getting as much water as they please. They’ll find out how much they’re getting at OID’s April 21 board meeting.

Oakdale-area farmers were told to brace for caps of 24 to 30 inches – less than most crops require, meaning growers will pump more groundwater or take advantage of drought-coping programs. All are new because, until this year, OID customers took as much water as their crops could drink.

“It’s a year of firsts for a lot of people,” said Tom Orvis of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau. “We’re seeing OID doing some things they never dreamed of.”

Programs include farmer-to-farmer water buying and selling, and transferring water shares among parcels owned by the same farming outfit. Prices would not be monitored by the district, similar to the Modesto Irrigation District’s open-market sales program. “You hope people would not enrich themselves off a drought, but it’s impossible to police,” said OID General Manager Steve Knell.

By April 21, the district should pinpoint allotments. Whether the inch amount will be calculated per acre, as MID does, or by parcel, as SSJID does, is yet to be seen. Customers farming 10,000 acres who joined OID in the past couple of years, including Trinitas Partners, will get a third of the amount going to more established customers with 52,000 acres.

The OID board also could decide to require that farmers wishing to transfer water among themselves move at least 12 inches when submitting transfer requests. Knell anticipates receiving upward of 1,000 transfer requests. “It’s a burden we’re willing to take on to make this irrigation season work,” he said.

Tuesday’s audience had trouble conceiving that pulse flows would resume when officials have yet to agree on a water management plan. Late Monday, the state gave federal officials until April 25 to produce a revised plan.

OID and SSJID believe the water swelling the Stanislaus is legally theirs, based on a federal judge’s 2011 ruling recognizing the districts’ water rights.

“Whose water will be released down the Stanislaus River to satisfy the pulse flow?” OID counsel Tim O’Laughlin wrote in a letter to federal officials, dated Monday. Until state officials weigh in, “the districts are unwilling to bear the risk that district water will be taken from them and sent down the Stanislaus River,” he wrote.

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