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Area Water Woes Linger As Irrigation Season Looms
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Even as water began filling its canals this week, the Oakdale Irrigation District board discussed ways Tuesday morning to ensure there is enough to last until September.

Among the ideas: A cap on how much each of OID’s 2,900 agricultural customers can use this year – something that has never occurred in the district’s 105-year history.

Allocations are an accepted fact of life in most irrigation districts, especially as the California drought stretches into a fourth year. This past week, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District – which, like OID, has rights to water from the Stanislaus River – for the first time set a 36-inch limit for its farmers in 2015.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which share rights on the Tuolumne River, have indicated farmers should get no more than 16 inches this year. Growers in the Merced Irrigation District and along many parts of the valley’s West Side have gotten even worse news – no water.

OID directors didn’t decide on a cap Tuesday, but directed staff to return with a plan in time for the board’s April 7 meeting. Among the other options to be considered under the district’s drought policy:

Waste will not be tolerated. Minimal runoff will be allowed from fields, pastures and orchards. Customers will be given one warning for excessive runoff. On the second offense of unreasonable use, their water privileges may be cut off for the rest of the season.

Fines will be enforced. Proven cases of water theft or taking water outside of scheduled rotations will result in a $1,500 fine for the first offense, and a $2,500 fine and loss of water rights this year for the second offense.

Surcharges possible. The base rate for water this season is $27 per acre. In April, the board will consider whether to impose a first-ever drought surcharge of $6.10 per acre. It would partially offset OID’s increased electrical costs related to groundwater pumping.

“We know this isn’t going to be a great water season for anyone in California. We’re going to have to take extraordinary measures to get through this drought,” said Steve Knell, OID’s general manager.

The bulk of OID’s water is stored behind New Melones Dam, which is managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Monday, New Melones held about 597,000 acre-feet of water – only 40 percent of its historic average for the date. And no help is expected, with few storms in the short-term forecast and runoff projected to be 17 to 19 percent of average this spring.

OID and SSJID are negotiating with federal and state regulators to relax water flow requirements on the Stanislaus for fish as well as thresholds for salinity and dissolved oxygen in the Delta. The frustration of those discussions was apparent Tuesday. Knell doesn’t expect to know until mid-April how much water will be available for OID’s customers.

“We want to work cooperatively with fish agencies and the bureau to get us through the end point in December to meet all requirements of farmers and fish flows,” he said. “But it’s very difficult for us to manage the river when we have different scenarios we have to play with.”

It’s possible, Knell said, that New Melones, with a capacity of 2.4 million acre-feet, could be drained to a “dead pool” of 80,000 acre-feet by the end of the year. Downstream, Lake Tulloch also could be significantly lowered for the first time since the drought of 1991.

In the meantime, OID’s farmers should brace for likelihood that they will receive much less water for their orchards, fields and pastures this summer. Knell and his staff favor defined allotments measured by the district and scheduled through “arranged deliveries” as opposed to typical 12-, 14- or 16-day rotations.

“Once you get to your allocation, your gate is locked and you don’t get any more,” he said.

Director Frank Clark stressed the “accountability” needed from farmers and OID staff to operate in a drought environment, saying, “It’s a different ballgame.”

Director Al Bairos emphasized the need to reduce runoff from fields and spills at the end of OID’s canals.

“If we’re asking landowners to do all these things, we have to make sure we’re tight as well,” he said.

The district expects to rely again on its network of 26 deep wells to provide groundwater to supplement its surface deliveries. Last year, OID pumped about 17,000 acre-feet – twice its normal average – and anticipates a similar amount this year.

Despite that, Knell said the district’s most recent statistics show groundwater levels near its pumps dropped by an average of only 4.4 inches last year. Readings are taken in fall and spring. The largest drop was about six feet in the March-to-March comparison, he said, while the water table in other areas actually rose as much as 13 feet.

Particular attention was paid to groundwater levels at two wells near Valley Home, where many decades-old domestic wells either went dry or threatened to last summer.

The water table at the Campbell well dropped from 83.9 feet in March 2014 to 84.5 feet in this year. And the Valley Home well rose two feet, from 87.5 to 85.4 feet.

“It’s going to be an interesting year, but if we all pull together, we’ll get through it like we did last year,” said Director Steve Webb.

Later in the meeting, Knell also announced that two men have applied to replace District 5 Director Jack Alpers, who resigned last month for health reasons.

Albert Deniz and Gary Osmundson returned their applications by Monday’s deadline. Stanislaus County elections officials will determine that they are qualified before the other board members conduct interviews with them at 1 p.m. April 7.

An appointment will be announced by the end of April. That person will serve until November, when District 5 voters can select someone to finish the final two years of Alpers’ term. District 5 represents the southwest portion of OID’s 62,000-acre service area.