There may be uncertainty about how much water will be available for farmers in drought-stressed California next year, but one thing is clear in the Oakdale Irrigation District – water will cost more.
OID directors held a public hearing Tuesday morning on a proposal to raise agricultural water rates for the first time in three decades. More than two dozen people attended, but no one spoke for or against the idea during the comment period.
Instead, audience members watched as OID directors certified the results of a state-mandated protest vote among all ag users on the proposed rate increase. The plan would have been rejected if 1,476 (50 percent plus one) of landowners opposed it. But only 536 protest votes were received, including a few hand-delivered Tuesday.
OID’s 650 domestic water users are not affected and did not vote.
The next step for the OID board will come Nov. 4, when directors will decide whether to move ahead with a consultant’s recommendation to raise ag water rates for the first time since the early 1980s. The district is under a state deadline to measure how much water is delivered to customers and develop a volumetric pricing structure for the 2015 irrigation season.
The proposal being considered features a tiered pricing structure with a base rate of $27 per acre and a volumetric rate on top of that for the water used. Until now, OID has charged its agricultural customers $19.50 per acre per year for as much water as they can put to a reasonable and beneficial use.
If approved next month, the new rates will take effect immediately and likely will be phased in over two or three years.
Directors Al Bairos, Herman Doornenbal, Frank Clark and Steve Webb voted unanimously Tuesday to accept the results of the protest vote and endorse the consultant’s study.
“We’re going to work as hard as we can to keep rates as low as we can,” Webb assured the audience.
The proposal includes the base rate, plus charges per acre foot beginning at $3.15 for the first three acre feet that rise to $6.25, $8.30, $10.40 and $20.75 at successive levels.
The plan includes a 3 percent escalator clause, which directors can enact or not each year. There also is a per-acre surcharge of $6.10 per acre when the board declares a drought, as it did earlier this year.
In 2015, staff recommends that all users pay only the flat rate of $27 per acre for water. Their bi-monthly bills would indicate how much they would have paid if the full rates had been implemented. Directors will decide late next year how to charge for 2016.
The phased-in approach, General Manager Steve Knell explained, anticipates that farmers will invest in ways to improve their water efficiency before the full rate hike takes effect. It also gives the district time to upgrade its metering and measuring capability.
“It’s about managing water and measuring water. It’s the same thing that urban folks went through with meters,” Knell said.
Under the current rate structure, OID spends about $1.5 million more to deliver water than it receives in revenue. The fully implemented new structure would close that gap. The proposed rate hike comes as OID and other water agencies across California confront the ongoing impact of the three-year drought, which has lowered some reservoir levels to near historic lows.
OID and its partner on the Stanislaus River – the South San Joaquin Irrigation District – jointly own and operate Tulloch, Beardsley and Donnells reservoirs. Irrigation water is delivered through New Melones Reservoir, which is managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Knell said the three-year drought has taken its toll on New Melones; another dry winter could leave the two irrigation districts competing with the federal government for the ability to deliver water for agricultural needs or send it down the river to benefit fish and the Delta.
A fourth consecutive below-average rain and snow year, Knell warned, could leave New Melones virtually empty by the end of next summer.
When asked by directors on the potential impact on OID customers in that scenario, Knell replied: “The answer we can’t provide right now is what that would mean. … Across the state, agricultural has been asking for a reduction in the amount of water going down the rivers.”
Knell said he hopes to meet with federal officials next month to begin to plan for drought contingencies in 2015.
Webb, summing up the outlook, said: “We need to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”