It was fascinating to read Janie Gatzman’s letter of support for the Oakdale Irrigation District’s (OID) water sale in Wednesday’s Modesto Bee. Alert readers will remember that late last June Gatzman wrote that farming “south of the Tuolumne River” had not caused, “significant impacts to downstream city wells.”
Gatzman made her claim despite widespread knowledge of a huge cone of depression in the very area she claimed suffered no “significant impacts.” In fact, as we noted on July 31, officials from the city of Turlock have said repeatedly that overdrafting east of Turlock has caused, “a general decline in groundwater levels.” Many domestic wells have gone dry in the area as well. Now Gatzman has decided there are also no problems north of the Tuolumne River.
Gatzman and others who support OID’s secret sale prefer to ignore impacts on groundwater altogether, whether from pumping or water transfers. They’re also willing to overlook OID’s penchant for backroom deals and hidden agendas.
OID General Manager Steve Knell has admitted OID conducted the water sale secretly because management and the board of directors wished to avoid questions from the public. At the very least, this is a violation of the spirit of the Brown Act, which requires public agencies to conduct their business in public.
Oakdale farmer John Brichetto said at Tuesday’s OID board meeting that he wasn’t surprised that OID had sold water because they have always sold water. As one of the district’s largest water users, Brichetto benefits greatly from OID’s policy of providing local farmers with water at prices far below the cost of delivery.
He’s right about one thing—no one should be surprised when OID sells water. OID has to sell water to balance its books. That means OID management begins every year with a budget deficit that can be addressed only be selling water outside the district.
It’s a policy that can buy a lot of votes and political support but it’s also a policy in jeopardy. The long-term prospects for water sales outside a given region are bleak for many reasons but especially because the state’s new groundwater regulations will require plans and practices that recharge stressed aquifers, and virtually all the aquifers in the San Joaquin Valley are severely stressed.
Water sales also have tremendous negative impacts on the San Joaquin Delta. Many prominent conservationists are against water sales altogether and especially opposed to one-time sales like OID’s because they are able to skirt requirements imposed by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Earlier this year, OID had a sale quashed for failure to follow CEQA guidelines. Future CEQA requirements will be even more stringent, in part because of the continuing decline of the Delta and in part because of the new requirements for groundwater sustainability.
OID and its supporters would like to spin the sale as benefitting both fish and farmers. Had OID not been able to avoid public review, those talking points could not even have been floated. As it is, OID management and directors are facing two very bleak realities: One, this year’s sale still won’t balance the books, and two, next year they will have to bring off yet another sale under even more difficult conditions.