Frank Clark: Oakdale Irrigation District doesn’t mine groundwater

The Bee published a story Nov. 20 (“OID sale proposal ignites criticism”) about a discussion at a recent Stanislaus County Water Advisory Committee meeting. The article focused on two unrelated subjects – the Oakdale Irrigation District’s proposed sale of surplus water and its pumping of groundwater.

I would like to address those issues as well as some ill-informed comments made by County Supervisor Terry Withrow and Modesto Irrigation District Director Larry Byrd.

First, let me make it clear: OID does not pump groundwater and then sell it. That is called water mining. It is prohibited in Stanislaus County. We don’t do it.

This summer – in the third year of the California drought – we pumped about 17,000 acre-feet of groundwater. That’s about twice our average. We also sold no water.

Pumping has no bearing on what we are able to transfer. They are separate and distinct aspects of our mission, which is to “protect and develop … water resources for the maximum benefit of the Oakdale Irrigation District community.”

OID has a “use it or lose it” agreement with the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages New Melones Reservoir. That means any water left over from our annual allotment at the end of our irrigation season is forfeited to the government and sent down the Stanislaus River to the ocean with no benefit to OID and our community. It makes sense to sell surplus water and use that income to make additional improvements to our infrastructure and water conservation projects.

Under that arrangement, whenever OID has more water available than its customers can use, we are going to sell that “surplus water” to generate revenue. This is done by dozens of other agencies all over California every year.

OID has transferred more than 382,000 acre-feet of surplus water in the past decade. The district has reinvested the $35 million from these sales to improve its infrastructure, implement water conservation projects, annex more farmland and keep its water rates low.

In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation has been OID’s biggest customer. From 1998 to 2010, OID joined four other irrigation districts – Modesto, Turlock, Merced and South San Joaquin – to transfer water to the federal government to develop fish-friendly flow schedules in the San Joaquin river as part of the Vernalis Adaptive Management Program.

It’s troubling that Byrd, who sits on the Water Advisory Committee, apparently is unaware of that fact and saw fit to criticize OID. The Bee’s statement that MID “has not sold water to outsiders in more than a decade” is incorrect.

Withrow thinks OID should use its water locally. That’s a great political statement, but it’s not that simple.

First, it fails to recognize that OID has committed more than 30,000 acre-feet of its water resources to more than 10,000 acres of agricultural land annexed since 2006.

Second, it fails to recognize that the conveyance systems to move water efficiently from OID to other parts of the county do not currently exist.

OID initiated discussions with landowners in eastern Stanislaus County and large local farming operations who have chosen to farm outside the irrigation district’s boundaries because development there is cheaper. OID’s interest in supplying water to that region is currently restricted by a small OID canal.

That canal currently serves only a tiny portion of that area, about 2,000 acres, known as the Paulsell Valley. It is not capable of carrying the volume of water necessary to replace the groundwater being pumped by the 10,000 to 15,000 acres of young trees and vines that have been planted.

We have had preliminary discussions with some Paulsell landowners who have expressed interest in any OID surplus water, but we have made it clear they will need to pay to enlarge the canal and all the new infrastructure necessary to deliver that water – an investment of $45 million or more.

Our proposed 2015 budget shows income from water transfers at $3.9 million. The reality is this: If OID has no water beyond our OID customers’ needs, then there is no surplus to transfer. This is always the case, and for anyone to suggest otherwise is wrong.

Understanding the complexities of water management takes facts, and we look to the facts to intelligently drive these discussions, not emotion generated by inaccurate commentaries.

Frank Clark is a director for the Oakdale Irrigation District.