Groundwater Crisis

OID water sales plan bashed by county advisory committee

A briefing of the Stanislaus County Water Advisory Committee on the state’s proposals to reduce river diversions for agriculture quickly turned into a pointed discussion about Oakdale Irrigation District’s determination to pump groundwater for its farmers while selling surface water to agencies outside the region.

Water attorney Tim O’Laughlin spoke to the committee about concerns shared across the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers on Wednesday. But after his presentation, committee members immediately began to pepper O’Laughlin, who represents OID, with questions about the district’s water sales.

“Why don’t you just sell that water in our county?” asked Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow, who tried to get O’Laughlin to explain OID’s actions.

This month, O’Laughlin has been helping OID negotiate irrigation water sales to Fresno County’s Westlands Water District, the Stockton East Water District and other “federal and state water contractors.” The talks are scheduled to resume Dec. 9.

Withrow said there are Stanislaus farmers who want to buy OID’s surface water so they don’t have to pump as much groundwater. He urged O’Laughlin to “work on keeping that water here” rather then selling it outside the region.

During the past decade, OID has sold 382,408 acre-feet of water to outside buyers, collecting more than $35.3 million. Its proposed 2015 budget calls for selling an additional $3.9 million worth of OID water outside the area.

OID’s groundwater wells, meanwhile, have pumped about 88,000 acre-feet from local aquifers since 2004. That includes a record-high 17,000 acre-feet this year.

Stanislaus’ Water Advisory Committee is focused on protecting the county’s groundwater reserves and halting overdraft of the aquifers. It drafted the groundwater sustainability ordinance that will be considered by county supervisors Tuesday.

That proposed ordinance would prohibit irrigation districts from exporting water, which it defines as “the act of conveying groundwater, or surface water for which groundwater has been substituted, out of the county.”

“If OID goes forward and tries to sell (water to out-of-county buyers in 2015), we’re going to address that,” Withrow said during Wednesday’s meeting. He said that’s why the groundwater export ban was put in the ordinance.

Withrow has helped lead the Water Advisory Committee since it formed in February. He repeatedly has called for Stanislaus’ irrigation districts to be more cooperative in addressing groundwater issues.

“The only way we’re going to solve our groundwater problem is with surface water,” Withrow said. He urged the Oakdale, Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts to “think regionally” when making water decisions, rather than just focusing on their own agencies.

MID has not sold any water to outsiders in more than a decade, and TID has sold less that 15,000 acre-feet.

MID Director Larry Byrd joined in the criticism of OID.

“I’m not happy Oakdale’s going to sell that water out of their community, especially when they’ve got neighbors knocking on their door wanting to buy,” said Byrd, who represents MID on the Water Advisory Committee. “We need to take care of our community’s needs.”

Byrd told O’Laughlin he would “be a hero” if he can get OID to keep its water within Stanislaus.

“One of the major problems we have is conveyance … and how to get water into the rest of Stanislaus County,” said O’Laughlin, explaining why transferring OID water within the county might not be easy.

O’Laughlin said he previously looked into options for OID to deliver water to the Paulsell Valley in eastern Stanislaus, which depends entirely on groundwater for irrigation. He noted how expensive that would be.

Paulsell Valley almond grower Louis Brichetto is among a group of farmers pursuing OID water. Brichetto, who also is a Water Advisory Committee member, said he has been trying for years to get some of his ag land annexed into OID and said he has $3 million available to do it.

“But there’s some motivation in that district to sell water out of the area,” rather than to Stanislaus farmers, Brichetto said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

OID isn’t represented on the Water Advisory Committee. OID Director Al Bairos was on the panel for about two months before resigning this spring.

While the proposed groundwater ordinance will be discussed by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, a final vote on whether to approve it is not expected until January.

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