The Oakdale Irrigation District will sell up to $10 million worth of river water to outside buyers this year, board members decided this week on a 3-2 vote.
Board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri dissented because OID hasn't studied how shipping water elsewhere might affect the local groundwater table. They were outvoted by Herman Doornenbal, Brad DeBoer and Tom Orvis, who noted that such studies are not required when one-time water releases also benefit migrating fish, helping propel them toward the ocean.
Despite recent heavy rain, many farmers on the west edge of Stanislaus County and points south don't anticipate getting enough water for their crops. OID has become a steady source, reaping more than $48 million in outside water sales since 2006.
OID customers will get all the water they need this year, said water counsel Tim O'Laughlin, thanks to a "miracle March." After an unusually dry start of the year, mountains to the east have received about twice the normal rainfall in March, he said.
Snow in those mountains eventually will melt. Foothill reservoirs collect the water, sending much of it down the Stanislaus for farmers around Oakdale, Riverbank and Manteca — and, when the market is right, for wealthy buyers near Fresno. Last year was unusually wet and no one wanted extra from OID and its sister district on the Stanislaus, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.
Surplus water this year also will benefit local farmers on the fringe of OID's boundaries, the board unanimously agreed in separate action. Those growers will pay $80 an acre-foot, the board agreed Tuesday, while buyers further away will be charged $200 an acre-foot.
Selling to outsiders might not be a bad idea if OID could prove that the loss of that water doesn't hurt the local aquifer, Santos said.
"We just lost a lawsuit," she said, over a proposal to ship elsewhere 10,000 acre-feet of water with no environmental studies. The transfer approved this week could send away up to 100,000 acre-feet, she noted.
"We should just do a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) EIR (Environmental Impact Report) if we're going to continue to do these (sales)," Santos said. "If we do the work, we're covered. Otherwise we're going to jeopardize our water rights. When the state gets ready to take water, they're going to say SSJID and OID are the only ones in the state doing this, and we can't defend ourselves."
Technically, the sister districts abandon water at a foothill reservoir and buyers pick it up downstream. The strategy is unique in California.
O'Laughlin explained that state and federal water agencies have signed off on such actions, including the sale in question.
In addition to wealthy Fresno-area buyers, such transfers help the Del Puerto, Patterson and West Stanislaus water districts in this county, General Manager Steve Knell said. "(They) are thankful for each and every drop of water they can get," he said.
And OID has come to depend on this income, representing 27 percent of OID's revenue in recent years, a staff report said.
Because of dry months in January and February, OID initially had no plan to shop water elsewhere, and prepared no environmental studies. Stopping now to do even a cursory document would take weeks and would provide no guarantee that the district won't be sued, O'Laughlin said.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390