With the irony of rain and stormy skies outside, the Oakdale Irrigation District held a water committee meeting to discuss this year’s continuing drought from lack of rain and how the 106-year-old district was allocating its water to customers.
Armed with signed petitions, a cadre of farmers and ranchers, led by rice farmer Robert Frobose, were in attendance to take on board members and district officials’ April 21 decision to allow Tier 2 customers 10 inches of water per parcel at what the farmers felt was at the expense of Tier 1 full allocations.
“We were told Tier 2 customers would not get water during dry years when the agreement to take on Trinitas was made,” said Frobose.
In 2013, OID absorbed 7300 acres of Trinitas almond orchards, designating them as a Tier 2 customer.
OID General Manager Steve Knell has pointed out that allowing Trinitas a 10-inch allocation saves the amount of water being pumped from wells, preserving underground aquifers. Additionally, Tier 2 customers like Trinitas pay a higher rate, bringing OID over $800,000 this year.
On Thursday, Knell reviewed with the board a previous report stating that the district anticipated receiving only 225,000 acre feet of water from Melones reservoir this year. In a normal year, over 300,000 acre feet would be received.
Knell showed a graph of previous years’ end of month storage reports for Old Melones reservoir showing 1.5 million acre feet in 2012, 1.05 million acre feet in 2013, and only 525,000 acre feet in 2014. All figures are from the month of September.
“The difference between last year and this year is reservoirs are running out of water,” Knell said, showing a 150,000 acre feet figure for the reservoir as the goal for 2015. “It’s going to go to zero.”
Knell added that the last two years were the third and fourth driest on record and that the long term forecast was that the drought would last another two years.
The district has to maintain a 150 cubic feet per second flow to the Stanislaus River to abide by the Endangered Species Act to ensure fish flow and cooling of the river.
“If the temperature goes up, we have to release more,” Knell said. “The first two weeks in July is a critical point.”
Knell said with the new allocations, the district was trying to prevent irrigation season being shut down for an Endangered Species Act violation.
Knell produced a list of three districts in California which were cited and “shut off” for waste and unreasonable use under the act.
In addition, Knell shared OID financial charts showing revenue falling over 4 percent a year and expenses rising over 1.5 percent, stating OID was “absorbing” the expenses rather than passing them along.
“Frankly, the district finances scare me more than the drought,” Knell said.
During discussions, Frobose referred to an “Embedded Agreement” the district had made with New Melones Reservoir and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District that ensured the delivery of Tier 1 customer water.
“There’s been a breakdown in trust,” Frobose explained. “It feels we haven’t been told the truth.”
When Frobose asked Knell to “let the water flow” for Tier 1 customers and given their allotted water amounts, Knell told him he was “living in Fairyland.”
The comment did not sit well with Frobose, who had his own vocal response.
After the meeting Frobose said the taking away of Tier 1 water for Tier 2 to save underground aquifers didn’t make sense because Tier 1 customers would have to shift to pumping ground water to compensate for the difference.
“It’s not going to save us any water from the underground aquifers,” Frobose said. “It’s only going to increase Tier 1 customers’ water pumping expenses.”
“We don’t want this to be farmer against farmer,” said Linda Santos, a Tier 1 rancher. “But we were told one thing when this agreement was made.”
Knell said he was frustrated with the audience members because of their “over simplification” of the risks and challenges the OID water users face for the year.
“Their issue appears to be simply based on one-need and one-need only; they want more water,” Knell said. “They appear to care little or nothing about the risks or the long term financial health of OID even after explaining OID’s anticipated loss of $17 million in reserves and what that long-term impact on our customer base is going to mean.
Knell stated the group offered no insight on how to solve the shortfalls and no solutions, just demands.
“They brushed (OID Board President) Webb off by saying, ‘we don’t believe anything you say’,” Knell said, “If they are not interested in hearing the facts as they exist on-record and not by their perception of the record, then that’s another frustration OID will have to deal with.”