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People vs Fish - Modesto Bee 3/4/14
Fish vs. people frustration rages at Oakdale Irrigation District meeting
State and federal officials favoring fish habitat are to blame for the Oakdale Irrigation District’s tentative plan to drain Tulloch Lake this summer, OID leaders told dozens of anxious lake-area residents.

The OID board also delayed until April deciding whether to impose a drought surcharge on farmers this year, and said the board is likely to cancel plans to pay farmers who agree to sell water to out-of-county buyers.

All are reactions to the drought now entering its fourth year.

“This is simple; we don’t know where the hell we are,” said Steve Knell, the district’s general manager, moments before a 4-0 vote to begin OID’s irrigation season March 16. He referred to uncertainty over how much water the district will get this year, after state and federal agencies figure the snowfall that can be captured in mountain reservoirs – not much – and factor in how much is needed to help revive the salmon population in the Stanislaus River.

OID operates dams on the river with its Tri-Dam partner, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, but they are subject to federal authority over the river’s largest dam, New Melones. Several years ago, the small districts fought hard to oppose new policies favoring fish but lost legal battles in federal appeals court. In the middle of a third dry season last year, requests to ease fish flows got no traction with California Sen. Barbara Boxer or the White House.

“People ought to come before fish,” said Tulloch resident Jack Cox, who formerly worked in national politics. He urged a comprehensive, nonpartisan appeal to federal officials and Gov. Jerry Brown, whose water leaders are pursuing a separate seizure of Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced river water, also to boost diminished fish counts.

OID attorney Tim O’Laughlin told the standing-room-only crowd, spilling from the board chamber into an adjoining hallway, that tap water from Tulloch – supplying drinking water to nearly 10,000 people, by Cox’s count – would not run out even if the districts reduce the reservoir to a veritable puddle.

That last happened in 1991, at the end of another drought. The districts discovered then that releases from the deeper New Melones kept the Stanislaus a few degrees cooler than normal – better for fish, O’Laughlin said.

Two weeks ago, OID leaders said nothing of the plight of neighbors if Tulloch were drained; the overriding motivation was saving up to 25,000 acre-feet of water for farmers.

An audience member Tuesday objected to Knell’s dismissal of Tulloch concerns in an opinion-page piece in Sunday’s Modesto Bee. Knell had noted that the districts and a federal agency hold water rights on the Stanislaus, not thousands of home owners, and said the loss of pontoon boat rentals pales in comparison with the loss of the districts’ hydropower sales.

OID Chairman Steve Webb assured people that the board sympathizes with everyone affected by fish policies and the drought.

Board members formally declared a drought Tuesday, but balked at having farmers pay a $6.10 per-acre drought surcharge. The board last year agreed to raise water rates this year and didn’t want to hand customers a double-whammy, but they could revisit the issue April 21.

The surcharge might have raised $414,500, which could help cover costs for anticipated groundwater pumping to augment surface supplies.

Also April 21, the board might consider resurrecting water exports. OID in January had agreed to let more than 110 farmers forgo shares of water to be sold for $400 an acre-foot to Fresno-area buyers, with 20 percent of proceeds going to farmers in cash and 75 percent helping with equipment upgrades that would save water in the future.

The drought and a lawsuit threat from former board member Louis Brichetto put the idea on hold. Brichetto’s attorney contended that the district should first conduct extensive studies to conform with state environmental law.

O’Laughlin said if the matter ended up in court, Brichetto likely would win. The board voted 3-1 to hold off until April 21; Al Bairos dissented, saying the export plan is sound and he would prefer keeping it on track by starting the studies, which could take three months or more.

Tri-Dam will host a town hall meeting to discuss the water situation at 10 a.m. Saturday at 920 Black Creek Drive in Copperopolis.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.


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