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OID Meeting - Directors Review Drought Plan Options
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Even a winter blessed by above-average Valley rain and Sierra snow won’t be enough to eliminate the ongoing effects of the three-year drought in California, Oakdale Irrigation District directors were told Tuesday morning.

A fourth dry winter could lead to widespread water shortages, voluntary land fallowing and, in the worst case, the possibility that the district could be out of water by the middle of next summer.

OID General Manager Steve Knell pulled no punches in describing the shape the district is in today and the challenges it will face if the drought continues. He told the board and an attentive audience of more than two dozen farmers and others that the district must plan for the worst while hoping for the best.

The best scenario, of course, is plenty of rain and snow to generate precious runoff in the Stanislaus River basin. And while Knell said weather experts forecast a 65 percent chance of an El Nino event this year – which often means a wet winter in some parts of California – the same meteorologists say it’s a weaker than normal system.

Couple that with the bone dry conditions in the watershed and Knell, in a report released following the meeting, said it will take years for OID and other water districts to recover from the ongoing drought, California’s worst since the late 1970s. He said even if rain and snowfall were 125 percent to 130 percent of normal next winter, so much moisture would be absorbed into the ground that the runoff generated would be that of a normal year.

Knell said New Melones Reservoir, where OID shares storage rights with the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, began the year with 1,050,000 acre-feet. By the end of this water season in October, it is predicted to have less than 500,000 acre-feet. Its capacity is more than 2 million acre-feet.

Another dry winter could mean New Melones would be nearly empty by July or August next year.

“We need to be in a position to address both a surplus of water or what we’re going to do if it gets worse,” said Knell, who presented a range of options to board members that included asking farmers to voluntarily take land out of production to restrictions on how much irrigation water would be allowed to run off orchards, fields and pastures.

Board members emphasized that if a drought fallowing program is implemented, all water saved would remain within OID’s boundaries.

“I’m not a proponent of fallowing ground and selling water outside the district,” said Director Steve Webb, who was supported in that stance by Directors Frank Clark, Herman Doornenbal and Al Bairos. Director Jack Alpers was absent.

In the past decade, OID has transferred surplus water to various customers in the San Joaquin Valley and reinvested the more than $35 million it has received into efficiencies in its canals, tunnels and delivery systems.

A surplus is unlikely next year, however, prompting Clark to say, “I can’t think of any circumstance where we would transfer water out of district (in 2015).”

Doornenbal offered his thoughts on the fallowing option.

“As far as fallowing, I think it’s a good idea that the water must stay in the district. We have a lot of permanent crops and I think guys are going to be looking for ways to irrigate them. People are going to be desperate and be willing to do what it takes to get water to them.”

Complicating the water situation going forward, Knell said, are curtailment notices issued by the state in late May as well as the uncertainty of how the federal Bureau of Reclamation will choose to manage the remaining water in New Melones.

The curtailment notices essentially prevent OID and other districts from saving water this year for use next year. They are in force for nine months – well beyond the end of the irrigation season this fall.

“Curtailment notice could be biggest hurdle we have. It’s ludicrous they extended it out to April,” Doornenbal said.

Knell said OID and other water agencies have asked the state to rescind the curtailment notices by mid-October, but no decision has been announced.

The board voted unanimously to ask Knell and his staff to present a framework of water management options for consideration later this fall.