With each passing week without a significant storm, the grip of the four-year California drought squeezes more tightly on water agencies up and down the state. And members of the Oakdale Irrigation District board are feeling the pressure.
The lack of valley rain and Sierra snow permeated every discussion at Tuesday’s Oakdale Irrigation District board meeting, March 3, where more than 50 people spilled from the meeting room into the hallway.
After lengthy discussion, OID directors voted to: formally declare a drought, which could lead to a one-time surcharge; start filling OID’s canals March 16 so farmers can irrigate thirsty crops and pastures; and likely delay the On-Farm Conservation Funding Program for one year in the face of poor hydrology and a legal threat.
The OID board also heard concerns from worried Tulloch Lake homeowners, dozens of whom packed the audience. Tulloch Lake could be dramatically lowered this fall to provide water for farmers while meeting mandated Stanislaus River flow requirements for fish.
OID and the South San Joaquin Irrigation District built the dam more than 50 years ago and own the 67,000 acre-feet of water behind it. They jointly operate the lake as part of their Tri-Dam Authority, which also includes Lyons and Beardsley reservoirs. Tulloch last was drained in 1991, at the tail end of another lengthy drought. What will eventually happen isn’t certain, but snowpack reports and runoff forecasts done twice more this month are expected to provide some clarity by mid-April. Directors and OID officials, however, indicate the outlook isn’t good.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen this year,” admitted Tim O’Laughlin, OID’s water attorney.
He and OID General Manager Steve Knell have had numerous conversations this year with federal and state officials trying to get drought-related relief from Endangered Species Act protection for steelhead trout, so-called “pulse flows” to push young salmon toward the ocean.
Tulloch homeowners on Tuesday decried policies favoring fish over people. They also wondered what has been done to convince California’s congressional delegation of the seriousness of the problem. O’Laughlin assured them that he has contacted Congressmen Tom McClintock, Jeff Denham, Kevin McCarthy, Devin Nunes and David Valadao as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Bob Rucker, an aide to Denham, attended Tuesday’s meeting.
Still, O’Laughlin is not optimistic that federal help is on the way.
“I think it’s safe to say, even if there is drought legislation this year, it will not have any relief from the Endangered Species Act,” he said.
New Melones Reservoir, upstream of Tulloch, had just 606,000 acre-feet of water Tuesday – 41 percent of its historic average for the date. Knell presented runoff forecasts that showed about 240,000 acre feet of runoff could flow into the lake this year. That would mean OID and SSJID each would receive about 225,000 acre-feet for farmers – about the same as last season. But the federal Bureau of Reclamation controls environmental releases. And unless there are some modifications, there may not be enough water left by the fall to meet those requirements.
“We’ve told federal regulators they’re crashing and burning the reservoir,” O’Laughlin said.
A meeting to further address concerns and answer questions about Tulloch is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon this Saturday, March 7 at the Black Creek Center, 920 Black Creek Drive in Copperopolis.
The OID board’s drought declaration has a direct impact on the district’s 2,900 agricultural customers. Farmers will pay $27 per acre this year, with the added possibility of a first-ever drought surcharge of $6.10 per acre to partially offset increased electrical costs related to groundwater pumping. Directors pushed that decision into April.
And though the irrigation season will begin March 16, Knell said there is a real possibility that allocations will be capped this year, rotations will be at least 14 days apart and farmers who allow water to run off their property could face fines of up to $1,500 or loss of irrigation rights. Those decisions also will be determined next month.
Directors had been expected to finalize contracts with more than 110 OID customers who enrolled in the On-Farm Conservation Funding Program. Instead, that program is now on hold because of the drought and a legal challenge by former board member Louis Brichetto. His attorney sent a letter last month threatening legal action unless a CEQA report was completed to address “significant environmental effects.” The board didn’t kill the program, but made it clear that it is unlikely in 2015. Director Al Bairos was the only one who voted in favor of it for 2015, saying, “This is a very good program and I think we should move ahead.”
The problem, O’Laughlin explained, is the timing. A CEQA report takes about 90 days, meaning farmers wouldn’t know until July whether it would be available to help them pay for water efficiency projects.
“Unfortunately, the window is rapidly closing for this year,” O’Laughlin said. “The timing is becoming problematic.”
Like everything else Tuesday, Knell said the impact of the drought can’t be minimized.
“I think there is substantial risk we won’t have enough water this year for the program,” he said.
Even if directors delay the program this year, it can be considered again in 2016, Knell said.