An emotionally charged debate about water allocations in the fourth year of drought broke out at Tuesday’s Oakdale Irrigation District board meeting.
On one side were district directors, who voted 5-0 to give most customers an additional six inches of water based on positive analysis of early season irrigation patterns. The decision means about 2,900 Tier 1 agricultural users will receive 36 inches per acre this year.
But the action wasn’t enough for some, including a handful of angry farmers. They contend they could have even more water if OID would cut off Trinitas Farming, its only current Tier 2 customer. Trinitas’ 7,200 acres were annexed into the district in 2013. OID voted April 21 to provide 10 inches of water to Trinitas.
Allotments are brand new in OID’s 105-year history. Until the drought, farmers had access to as much water as they needed. How much they used varied widely. Depending upon crop, soil type and weather, farmers might use as little as 30 inches or as much as 80 to irrigate their crops.
Several farmers in attendance at the May 5 meeting angrily accused OID of not providing “full allocations” to them so it could give water to the Tier 2 group.
Rice grower Bob Frobose led the charge, at times yelling at OID directors and accusing them of not responding to repeated attempts to contact them. He has organized a petition drive to convince the board to cut off Trinitas.
“The first time you have a short water year, you still give them water,” he charged.
Board President Steve Webb – who at one point had to loudly bang his gavel to restore order – said there are many competing factors when determining how much water to provide.
“This board and management are doing a balancing act with the state and federal government,” Webb said. “We’re trying to avoid an Endangered Species Act (order) that would take all of our water.”
Steelhead trout in the Stanislaus River are protected by the federal government.
Frobose and land owner Linda Santos argued that language in a 2013 annexation agreement with Trinitas Farming gave Tier 1 users rights to all the water that they need. Not so, countered Director Frank Clark.
“The fact of the matter is the contract says we ‘may’ and not ‘shall’ curtail water,” he said.
“I hope you don’t forget we’re in the fourth year of a drought,” Clark added. “The people in this state and agriculture particularly have suffered because of the drought. This board and our staff made it possible for you to get your full allotment in three out of four years. Don’t forget that. You should be thankful. … Many people in this state would love to sit we’re you’ve been sitting the past three years.”
Frobose and farmer Danny Taro questioned how OID is managing its reduced allocation of 225,000 acre-feet from New Melones Reservoir this season. In a normal year, OID has rights to 300,000 acre-feet from the Stanislaus River dam.
The district expects to deliver 210,000 acre-feet this year, an OID staff report indicated, leaving an additional 10,000 acre-feet in storage at New Melones and a 5,000 acre-foot buffer later this summer “because of the variability and uncertainty inherit in the water business.”
Last month, OID and its partner on the Stanislaus – the South San Joaquin Irrigation District – reached a hard-fought deal with state and federal officials about the management of the river and New Melones. A key part of that agreement specified that at least 150,000 acre-feet water must be in the dam on Oct. 1, when irrigation season ends. Monday, New Melones held about 487,000 acre-feet, just 20 percent of its 2.4-million acre-foot capacity.
“New Melones has hardly any water in it this year,” Webb said. “There are water temperature problems and fish problems. … We have to stay conservative and we have to make sure there’s water in that lake or they will stop us from diverting water. …
“We deliver water to our farmers and ranchers. That’s what we do here. We’re trying to give you as much water as we can.”
Summed up Director Herman Doornenbal: “That’s the balancing act. If we kill fish, we’re toast. You’re toast.”
All customers pay $27 per acre this year, plus a drought surcharge of $6.10. Trinitas will pay an additional $55 per acre foot for the water it uses. Trinitas, if it receives 10 inches of water for its 7,200 acres, will pay $524,000 this year. All of OID’s other customers – representing about 60,000 acres – will generate about $1.62 million. That’s an important budgetary consideration for a district that has been burning through reserves, said General Manager Steve Knell.
OID dipped into its reserves to the tune of $7 million to balance its budget in 2014. This year, it expects to pull as much as $10 million from savings to make up for the lack of revenue typically associated with hydroelectric power generation and water transfers.
“That money will eventually need to be recouped from water sales (to buyers elsewhere) or assessments (charged to OID customers) or both, after the drought is over,” a staff report noted. “The more OID draws down its reserves, the greater that payback cost will grow.”
Directors agreed to hold a special water committee meeting on Thursday, May 14, when Webb and Doornenbal will listen to comments and concerns from all sides. That meeting tentatively is scheduled for 3 p.m. in the board room. The two-man committee will make a recommendation to the full board.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first for new District 5 Director Gary Osmundson, who was appointed last month to replace Jack Alpers, who resigned in February for health reasons. Osmundson, 40, represents southwest Oakdale. The appointment lasts until November, when voters can choose who will complete the remaining two years of Alpers’ term.