OID approves fallowing program and water sales

Pasture owners around Oakdale willing to go without water will be paid for fallowing their land this year, Oakdale Irrigation District directors decided Tuesday.

The water saved by idling fields will be sold to thirsty out-of-county water agencies. OID landowners volunteering for the deal could collect millions in “cash incentives” and funds to pay for conservation practices on their private properties.

The publicly owned irrigation district expects to sell the saved water for a whopping $400 per acre-foot. OID customers have been paying an average of only $4.30 per acre-foot to irrigate, but water-starved farmers elsewhere – such as those in Fresno County’s Westlands Water District – apparently are willing to pay 93 times more than that.

During closed-door meetings with Westlands and other irrigation districts, the OID board of directors has been negotiating the “price and terms” of exporting Oakdale water.

Tuesday, directors Steve Webb, Frank Clark, Al Bairos and Herman Doornenbal voted to go ahead with the land fallowing and water sale plan. Director Jack Alpers, 78, who has not attended an OID meeting in six months, was absent.

General Manager Steve Knell predicted owners of about 1,500 acres of pasture, rice, oat and corn fields will agree to forgo water in trade for money this year.

If that happens, OID would sell about 6,000 acre-feet of water for $2.4 million. Up to $2.28 million of those funds would go to the private landowners, and the public agency would keep about $120,000 to cover its administrative costs.

About 38 landowners have submitted paperwork indicating interest in participating. Among them is the owner of 177 acres who could collect up to $269,040 this year from the deal.

After voting for the plan, Doornenbal told The Bee he may opt to put some of his own property in the program. Doornenbal is a farmer who owns more than 100 acres in southeast San Joaquin County.

“I’m thinking about it,” he said, noting that he does not think it would be a conflict of interest for him to financially benefit from the program. “If I do it, I’m not doing anything different than anybody else. That’s all I’m going to say.”

Bairos and Webb, who also own farmland in the district, said they don’t plan to participate this year.

The program, which OID calls an “on-farm conservation funding program,” will start this spring and last five years. Landowners can participate for any one year.

OID plans to run the program, with two members of its board of directors serving on an ad hoc committee given “the authority to make decisions on contract terms and conditions.”

That could include deciding which conservation measures would qualify for funding.

According to the program’s most recent draft description, conservation projects that could qualify for funding include “land conversions from high water use crops to lower water use crops.” Laser land leveling, reseeding and new irrigation pipelines also could qualify.

That could cover a farmer’s cost of converting a pasture into an almond orchard, because modern orchards use less water than typical pastures in OID.

OID landowners interested in benefiting from selling water rather than using it this year have until Jan. 14 to sign up.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.