In a 4-1 vote at a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 28, the Oakdale Irrigation District Board of Directors approved rescinding their action from the Jan. 23 special meeting where they had originally voted to send out a mailer to OID landowners to see about their interest in voluntarily fallowing land in order to make water available for a transfer to the Westlands Water District. Director Jack Alpers was the dissenting vote. To clarify, OID won’t send out fliers.
On Jan. 23, the board had voted 3-2 to send out the fliers regarding constituent interest, in front of a standing-room-only crowd that overflowed the boardroom. Emotions ran high at the meeting with numerous comments by constituents, other interested parties, and board members. The vast majority of people who spoke were against, or concerned about, sending water out of the area.
Director Steve Webb told the Jan. 28 meeting audience that following the weekend and after the board members had talked with a number of OID landowners, they decided to call this special meeting. He said that the program they were considering was a farmer to farmer program. However, he said that by doing a fallowing program, dairymen may not be able to get silage or find pasture. He noted how people raising cattle are barely getting by and said that if the pastures are fallowed, some of those people may not find pasture at all. He also talked about people who do custom bailing and farming and said that they, too, would be negatively affected by the fallowing of pastureland.
OID General Manager Steve Knell said the intent of the Jan. 23 special meeting was to determine if there was interest in sending out a flier and then following up with workshops. He pointed out that the flier was a solicitation, not an enrollment or a contract.
Director Herman Doornenbal said he fielded so many phone calls, that his phone’s charge died in a matter of a few short hours. He said he was called every name in the book and called it “not right” and later said he didn’t appreciate people “calling up and raising hell because of bits and pieces” of information. He said that his constituents weren’t ready for a fallowing program but added that everyone needed to make decisions based on accurate information. He said that inaccurate information was disseminated and he chastised the writer of a news article which he believed was meant to incite people.
Director Al Bairos said that he also had a lot of calls and that his constituents told him that fallowing land isn’t the right way to go. He added that he likes seeing the water stay local. He said that OID may now see its water conservation account in New Melones go down to nothing. He said that the fallowing program deal may help individual landowners in the short run but not over the long haul, and he also commented on the uncertainty of rain and also groundwater issues.
“It would be very detrimental to our economy as a whole,” Bairos said, adding that the district needs to focus on the local people.
Director Jack Alpers said that OID had the same discussions in 2001. It was an election year, he said, and three of the five directors were recalled but after the election, OID sold the water. He talked about the low rates the OID farmers pay, the millions of dollars in improvements to the district, and OID’s contributions to the community. He said OID did all that through water transfers. He added that no OID farmer has gone without water and that the contracts drawn up by the OID legal team make sure OID farmers are made whole first.
Alpers felt OID should think about the fallowing program. He said that OID would be brokering an agreement between farmers on this side and farmers on that side.
Westlands was offering $400 per acre-foot of water. For 40,000 acre feet of water, that totals $16 million. Figuring four acre feet of water per acre, for 10,000 acres of pastureland, that’s $1,600 per acre, of which OID would have taken a 10 percent fee and passed on the remaining 90 percent to the landowners who fallowed their property. OID would’ve received $160 for each acre and the landowners would’ve received $1,440-per-acre of land.
Director Frank Clark read a statement and asked who the water belonged to. After explaining some of the math, he said that’s $14.4 million to pasture owners and $1.6 million to OID. He said a property owner with 250 acres of fallowed land would receive $360,000 and said that landowner would be selling “the people’s water.” He added that every acre fallowed affects livestock and asked what that would mean to the local economy. Clark said that water fuels this area’s economic engine. He also said the voluntary fallowing program is ill-conceived and illogical and wanted to see it dropped for good. His comments received applause from some people in attendance.
One attendee from the Stanislaus Water Coalition noted Doornenbal’s comments on inaccurate information and asked how they can get accurate information instead and commented on deserving transparency. Director Webb responded that General Manager Knell gives out the proper information but because the whole issue unfolded so quickly, he wasn’t able to get it all out.
Oakdale rancher Ken Kraus reiterated Webb’s earlier comments about how cattle ranchers would be affected. He shared that presently his cattle are on pasture in Chowchilla and he’s hauling hay to them every other day.
“If people I rent (pasture) from (in Oakdale) can get more money from OID by fallowing their ground, then I’m out of business,” Kraus said.
He added that years ago, back when he was in college, the Westlands Water District area was known for being dry and those people should’ve considered there was no water there.
Knell said after the Jan. 23 special meeting that between the governor’s drought proclamation and the State Water Resources Control Board, irrigation districts have to take heed. He said OID is asking, “how do we protect ourselves?” He said that the fallowing program was one option. He had also said that irrigation districts are the only source of surplus water and that there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the districts.
The next regular meeting of the OID Board of Directors will be at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 4 in the OID boardroom, 1205 East F.