The Perverse Arithmetic of Water Sales

Ever since Modesto Irrigation District (MID) proposed selling water to San Francisco more than ten years ago, the topic of sales has been fraught with political peril. The  prospect of selling local water to San Francisco brought about changes on the MID Board of Directors and served as a warning notice that peddling MID water to outsiders was political suicide.

No such peril existed for the nearby Oakdale Irrigation District (OID), which routinely sold water to distant buyers like Westlands Water District.  With few exceptions, OID customers seemed content to trade water for money, especially when OID farmers were getting irrigation water at rates below the cost of delivery.

OID sales began running into trouble when some parties objected to the water “transfers” on legal grounds. Once in court, the water sales were found to be in violation of provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the sales program ran aground.

More recently, a fuss ensued when Mapes Ranch sold so-called “tail water” to buyers outside MID. Mapes Ranch is within MID boundaries and receives MID water that makes its way there via canals that serve farmers east of the Mapes Ranch. The tail water is the result of runoff or under-utilized water. Due to a 1980s agreement, the Mapes Ranch is free to use this water in most any way it sees fit. In 2022, Mapes Ranch saw fit to sell 6,800-acre feet for over eight million dollars.

Critics of the sale pointed out that MID customers received no benefit from the commodification and sale of this water, and asked pointedly why MID permitted that much “excess” water to go unused for public benefit in the first place. It’s a good question.

Today, another proposed MID sale has again stirred controversy. The current proposal is to sell MID water to farmers outside MID boundaries in eastern Stanislaus County. Critics of the sale say the asking price for the water — $80 an acre-foot, dropping to $60 after the first foot — is far too low. They say these same eastern Stanislaus County farmers pay $200 an acre-foot for OID water when it’s available.

Irrigation water Stanislaus County's west side


Supporters of the sale say selling surface water to groundwater-dependent farmers within the boundaries of the Modesto groundwater basin makes sense because it helps the district comply with California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which penalizes districts that fail to attain sustainable groundwater levels. They argue that utilizing surface water in lieu of groundwater helps protect local aquifers and the Modesto groundwater basin.

There are valid points for both sides. Those who would price water beyond the ability of local buyers to pay are clearly willing to sell that water outside local basins and aquifers. In so doing, they risk intervention by the state as it demands every district in the state achieve groundwater sustainability. It’s clear enough from failing wells on Stanislaus County’s east side, including on property within OID, that local basins and aquifers are overstressed.

Those in favor of selling water at prices favorable to local buyers argue that is one tactic for achieving groundwater sustainability under the strictures of SGMA. The key to this argument is a long-term plan for sustainability. The truth no one wants to admit openly is that we’ve already learned farming on Stanislaus County’s east side is unsustainable at present levels. It’s clear that much of the groundwater-dependent acreage there will have to be reduced.

When opposing sides offer valid arguments, the usual best outcome is through compromise. The chief benefit to the public is sustainability and even if it weren’t, the state requires sustainability or it will intervene.

MID Directors need to raise the price to east side farmers enough to mollify critics but not so much as to discourage buyers. The east side aquifer needs relief from over-pumping and the coming Sierra snowmelt offers relief, albeit temporary. The hard fact is that over the long term, thousands of acres of east side orchards will have to revert back to range land.

Keeping water local in wet years makes sense, but no one should think it’s a permanent solution. It’s a band aid for a hemorrhage.

Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.
Comments should be no more than 350 words. Comments may be edited for correctness, clarity, and civility.


  1. MID Groundwater Replenish Program Opinion
    This surplus MID Water must stay in the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin for groundwater sustainability and SGMA compliance for all or the state will take over the Modesto Sub-basin and reclassify the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin as a Critically Over-drafted groundwater basin.

    Don’t be fooled by the misleading propaganda, this MID Groundwater Replenish Program is available to all in the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin , East, West, North and South including the cities that are solely dependent on groundwater as well.

    If the MID Board overprices the Groundwater Replenish Program water the program will be a complete failure. A perfect example of an overpriced failing program is the OID’s ten year program where farmers are dropping out of the program because they simply can’t afford the $200 an acre foot with sub-cost of production commodity prices, high inflation and interest costs. The old district game of overpricing of the water in these programs is intentional and makes the water unaffordable thus opening the door to out of basin south of delta water sales which is detrimental of our groundwater basins and property values.

    It’s unfortunate that the main opposition of the MID GRP appears to be Mapes/Lyons who is well documented for selling the MID tail water that’s commingled with their other buckets of water then sells it out of the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin to Del Puerto Water District and others disguising it as conjunctive use water for sale.
    Please educate yourself and read this 34 page detailed Provost & Pritchard report paid for by Lyons/ Mapes called the (Mapes / Del Puerto Water District Pilot Water Transfer Program dated March 7, 2022) which is available at the MID office upon public document request. This detailed report has maps of the Mapes/Lyons ranch and wells mentioned in this report.
    In my opinion this water blending and exporting out of the Modesto Sub-Basin by Mapes/Lyons is not benefiting the MID taxpayers , MID, nor the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin.
    In my opinion the so called Friends of MID are not really friends of MID when they condemn using surplus MID water that would benefit Modesto Groundwater Sub-basin for SGMA compliance and groundwater stability.

    MID and other local (Special Districts) should develop drainage policies that eliminate drainage water and operational spills, then redirect that conserved public water to take care of the groundwater depletion hot spots in the Modesto Groundwater Sub-basin. For groundwater in-lieu recharge everyone that has district water available to them and pumps groundwater should be charged a high enough per acre foot rate by the districts to discourage pumping per newly proposed district policy.
    MID’s water rights dictate that their water is for its place of use and purpose of Use, within their service Area, sphere of Influence & the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin for SGMA compliance, not for export out of basin when groundwater levels are dropping.

    The MID should be complemented for developing this Groundwater Replenish Program and we wish it success for the benefit of all and the Modesto Groundwater Sub-basin.

    Please educate yourselves by reading the long history and background of the MID Groundwater Replenish Program meeting on the MID website. In the end, truth will prevail we pray that the MID Directors will have the courage to make the right decision to protect Modesto Groundwater Sub-basin for future generations.

    Little Muskrat 💦

  2. No comment. Rather an historical note.
    My parents bought their dairy on the west side of Hickman Rd in 1957. Our well casing was at 60’ with water at 18’. Other than the Souza dairy & the S&A Ranch on the east side of the road, my recollection is that everything else was dry farmed or grazing land. Even our neighbors, the Wassums who were also on the west side of Hickman, dry farmed.
    I believe it was the late 80’s when dad had to put in a new well with the casing being about 200’ deep. Unverified rumor had it that one of the huge farmers east of us had a well at the 1,200’ depth.
    That rolling hills area east of Hickman (also called the Oakdale Waterford Hiway) is not just hundreds of acres . It is tens of thousands of acres. Virtually all of that land requires ground water pumping – flood irrigation basically ended at Hickman Rd.

  3. four very large land owners are banking Modesto water in a sweetheart deal MID wont say whos getting the banked water …. but we kinda know who the big plantation owners are around here….

  4. MID GWR Plan Question,
    Let’s think about this, it’s ok for MID to give a public asset away meaning MID operational spills and MID tail water to Mapes/Lyons so they can resell it for millions. Then MID turns around and tries to make up their financial shortfall on the backs of the people who want to be SGMA compliant and restore the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin? If the MID BOD’s overprice the GRP water the program will be a failure with the water brokers being the only winners.
    How will the MID BOD’s explain their actions to the public when both domestic and ag wells continue to go dry that are both inside and outside the districts but within the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin? Everyone agrees that MID is not a charity and needs to operate in a positive cash flow manner to be sustainable so let’s see the MID BOD’s reach a reasonable solution that can move the MID GRP program forward and protect the Modesto Groundwater Sub-Basin aquifer.

    Little Muskrat 💦

  5. Excellent article, thoughtful responses, but given the MID has extra water and the City of Modesto lies smack in the middle of the MID District, why are the citizens of Modesto facing proposed water rate increases of 4.5% annually over five years?

    Shouldn’t the people within the MID District have first dibs on a readily accessible water supply at a more reasonable rate?

    It’ll soon be cheaper to take a champagne bath versus water at the rate we’re going!

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