Westlands plan to buy water from Oakdale raises flap

The Modesto BeeJanuary 24, 2014 

Stern-faced farmers, ranchers and environmentalists packed an Oakdale Irrigation District meeting last week to protest the district's plans to sell water to Westlands Water District.

Westlands is offering $400 per acre-foot for OID's irrigation water. To free up that water during this serious drought, OID's landowners would be paid to voluntarily fallow their land and forgo their rights to water deliveries this year.

How many acres of Oakdale land might go dry and how much water Westlands wants to buy were not stated. OID officials said they don't know, and they stressed that the water deal is just a proposal -- nothing has been approved.

Last year, OID sold more than 13 billion gallons to irrigation districts on the southwest side of the San Joaquin Valley, including 40,000 acre-feet to Westlands at $175 per acre-foot.

After hearing the details, the audience of more than 50 people clearly opposed the deal. Numerous objections were made to shipping water out of the region, even though doing so could financially benefit landowners and OID's coffers.

Strong opposition also was voiced to OID pursuing surface water sales during a drought year, especially because the district is pumping all its 22 groundwater wells at maximum capacity to supplement reduced flows from New Melones Reservoir.

Board Chairman Steve Webb asked the audience for a show of hands from those who might be interested in fallowing their land this year in trade for a $1,440-per-acre payment from Westlands.

One lone landowner raised his hand.

Rather than drop the idea, though, OID directors voted 3-2 to mail fliers to landowners throughout the district to gauge their interest. That's expected to happen soon because Westlands apparently wants to start buying water this spring.

Westlands, which serves parts of Fresno and Kern counties, has about 110,000 acres of permanent crops -- such as nut trees -- that desperately need water, OID attorney Tim O'Laughlin explained.

Westlands is willing to pay $400 per acre-foot for water from Oakdale. OID would give local landowners who fallow their property 90% of the proceeds. The district would keep 10% as an administrative fee.

Also last week, the federal Bureau of Reclamation said it's considering approval of Patterson Irrigation District's sale of 1,500 acre feet of water to Westlands. The sale is subject to public comment until Feb. 5.

Read more on the Oakdale Irrigation District meeting from The Modesto Bee.

Bee staff contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at (209) 578-2196 or jnsbranti@modbee.com.

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