Oakdale Irrigation District agrees – again – to give farmers more water

Despite the drought, local farmers this year will get 44 inches of water per parcel instead of 40, Oakdale irrigation leaders decided Tuesday, because customers so far have used much less than expected.

“Who would have thought at the beginning (of the season) that people would just decide not to irrigate this year?” said Steve Knell, Oakdale Irrigation District general manager, at Tuesday’s meeting. The board in April set a 30-inch cap, later bumping it to 36 inches, and then to 40.

In another matter, the OID board revived a controversial plan to sell some of its Stanislaus River water to wealthy outsiders in 2016.

While increasing the water cap to 44 inches for longtime customers, the board also agreed to up allotments for recently annexed Tier 2 customers from 10 to 14 inches this year. No one from the audience spoke against the move, though some people have stridently opposed any Tier 2 deliveries this year, principally to Trinitas Farming. When that company’s 7,234 acres joined OID two years ago, district officials said Trinitas would not get water in dry years if it would harm established customers.

“The more they give to Trinitas, the less they give to us,” grower Robert Frobose, who arrived at the board meeting just after the 5-0 vote, said afterward.

Board Chairman Steve Webb said he would rather that Trinitas not receive any water this year. “I’ll vote for it (anyway), since everyone else is. You know my feeling on it, though,” he said.

By comparison, Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts expect to deliver 16 and 18-20 inches this year, and customers of the Merced Irrigation District are getting none.

Knell said OID’s Tier 1 customers can count on about 49 inches because each customer will get 44 inches per parcel, not per acre; water not needed for “dead space” in roads, homes, barns and shops can be directed to crops.

Because OID farmers have taken less water than anticipated, the district has relied less heavily on deep wells pumping groundwater to augment river water, Knell said.

Without a formal vote, the board initiated a process for developing environmental studies needed to sell river water to out-of-county buyers next year. OID has reaped more than $35 million in similar transfers over a decade, although this year’s plan evaporated because of the drought and a legal challenge brought when it appeared the district intended to skip such studies.

OID had hoped for a $4 million windfall this year by having owners idle 140 parcels and selling water not needed for that land. Farmers would get 95 percent of the proceeds – 20 percent in cash and 75 percent to be used for efficiency upgrades, freeing up even more water in the future. Critics, however, say it’s unwise to enrich a few while exporting a precious resource.

OID leaders were miffed Tuesday that state water leaders have said they won’t allow state canals to be used for such transfers if they feature fallowing of “pasture and alfalfa.” The state views the return on those crops as minimal for the water needed to produce them.

“People should be able to grow what they want to grow,” Webb said. Many parties object, he said, contending that the state has no authority to regulate water owed to those such as OID with senior water rights predating 1914.

Farmers throughout Stanislaus County harvested 3.1 percent fewer acres of hay, pasture and rangeland in 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, than the year before, according to the 2013 crop report, and their gross income declined nearly 11 percent. The decrease in productive acres for all agricultural categories had a similar drop – 3.6 percent – in the same time frame, while overall income climbed more than 12 percent, to $3.7 billion.

In other news, OID will serve notice to people around Tulloch Lake that it could be drained to meet state and federal fish-flow requirements, Knell said. About 7,000 nervous people depend on the lake for drinking water; the Calaveras County Water District has yet to begin construction on lowering its intake pipe to prolong the supply.

Also, OID and its Tri-Dam partner on the Stanislaus, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, are considering hiring a cloud-seeding company with the idea of inducing more rain, OID board member Frank Clark said.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390