The regional water summit in Modesto on January 16 had its share of high moments, but one of the most revealing came from Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) General Manager Steve Knell.
Knell has been under pressure from local farmers and their supporters to keep OID water local. OID has a long history of water sales outside the region and its Board of Directors approved a proposed water sale to Westlands Water District just last month.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow has been especially persistent in advocating a regional solution to problems posed by pumping groundwater on the county’s east side. “The solution to pumping groundwater is surface water,” he says often. “If we work together, we can help each other out.”
“I like regionalization,” said Knell Friday, but added, “Our constituents come first.”
Knell then went on to say that “conservation is not part” of the OID water management plan. Knell expressed a desire to modernize and spoke glowingly of an automated canal system in Australia that doesn’t require ditch tenders. He estimated the cost of installing such a system for the OID at $35 million. He said OID could fund improvements by raising local water rates or by selling water outside the district. He clearly prefers to sell water.
For many observers, Knell’s presentation amounted to a defiant rejection of Withrow’s plea to “work together.”
But given his history, no one should be surprised that Steve Knell wants to sell water. During his previous employment at Imperial Irrigation District in southern California, Knell helped promote the biggest rural to urban water sale in U.S. history.
In fact, Knell’s name is on the Notice of Preparation for the Environmental Impact Review of a proposed sale of 300,000 acre feet of water from Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to the San Diego County Water Authority in 1999. The sale was to be accomplished by conserving water with a fallowing program by farmers within the IID.
Steve Knell was gone from IID by the time the water transfer was completed in 2003. For those who are wondering where the 300,000 acre feet of water came from, the source was the Colorado River. At that time, only those few who followed water issues closely understood that Colorado River water had been oversold. Even fewer realized that once the surface water was gone, the only resort was overdrafting groundwater.
Today, the devastating effects of selling Colorado River water beyond capacity are most evident at Lake Mead in Nevada, which last week dropped to its lowest levels ever. Groundwater supplies in the Colorado River Basin are also at all-time lows and many believe they are beyond recovery even if the drought ends soon.
In addition to adding to the multiple stresses on the Colorado River, the IID fallowing program also had other unanticipated consequences. One of the most far-reaching was depletion of the Salton Sea. Created by a breach in a canal bank and sustained by agricultural runoff, the Salton Sea became both a recreational destination and renowned bird sanctuary during the mid- to late twentieth century.
Today, its rapidly disappearing shoreline produces toxin-laden dust storms that cause severe breathing problems for residents in the region. Many farmers and environmentalist fear that additional adverse effects from the transfer could make the Imperial Valley another Owens Valley, the location of the now-notorious sale of water to Los Angeles that was featured in the film “Chinatown.”
Relief for the Imperial Valley won’t come any time soon. The water sale contract is for forty-five years with an option to extend to another thirty. Today’s drought and state-wide water shortages make the long-term sale look very good for San Diego County. Farmers in the Imperial Valley aren’t so happy.
In fact, the Imperial Irrigation District recently made it clear there will be no more water sales.
“We like to farm,” Tina Shields, Colorado River resources manager for the irrigation district, told the L.A. Times. “I don’t think anybody down here is going to volunteer for more transfers.”
Imperial Valley farmers aren’t the only ones who’ve been hurt by IID water sales. Expenses incurred from ill effects of over-allocation of Colorado River water will, as always, be borne for the most part by the public. Recent estimates peg the tab at anywhere from $29 to $70 billion.
For Steve Knell, the consequences of the IID water sale and fallowing program are not a problem. He has long since moved on to greener pastures and another river, where, he claims, there is plenty of “surplus water.”