San Joaquin Record
By Audrey Cooper
September 9, 2002
City Hoping to Buy from Nearby Districts
TRACY – This growing city needs water so the migrating mass of new residents can irrigate its lawns, bathe, make ice and wash dishes. More reliable water supplies also are needed to make sure residents aren’t left high and dry during the next serious drought. But a city plan to buy extra water from two nearby irrigation districts has drawn the ire of an environmental group, which says the water sale will allow more sprawling subdivisions to be built with little done to curb the environmental damage that follows.
The irrigation districts — Banta-Carbona and West Side — are expected this week to formally conclude that the water sale has no significant environmental impacts, based on a half-inch-thick report quietly released last month. That report is also the basis of Sierra Club complaints; namely, that the irrigation districts didn’t circulate the report to any organizations — the Sierra Club included — for public review. The districts say nobody had asked for a copy. This isn’t the first time the Sierra Club and Tracy officials have butted heads over water. The group has sued in the past over Tracy developments that were approved without consideration of water supplies. The group also has filed lawsuits over what it thought were inadequate environmental analyses of water-supply projects. City officials and representatives of the irrigation districts say the water sale makes good sense. Subdivisions already have covered much of irrigation districts’ cropland, reducing local farmers’ need for the water. It makes sense that the water should go to those homes that were planted on the land, they say. “We have to remember that West Side doesn’t make decisions about how the city of Tracy grows,” West Side attorney Jeanne Zolezzi said. “This sale is primarily to cover up for deficencies the city already has.” But Eric Parfrey of the Sierra Club says the water sale could create a rush on land in west Tracy, because it makes building homes there possible.
“That has to be addressed. Landowners there are licking their chops, and if this sale goes through, it will be the definition of growth-inducing behavior,” he said. Parfrey wants a full environmental impact statement on the water sale; city measures to protect farmland; a Tracy program to encourage water conservation; and a City Council mandate that the new water will go first to existing homes, then to already-planned development, and to future development as a last step.
Tracy Public Works Director Nick Pinhey says the goal of the sale is mostly to make sure the city is protected during an extended drought. The extra water could be injected into the underground basin and withdrawn during dry years, he said. All that assumes that a federal agency will approve the water sale. The water will come from the Central Valley Project, a massive, debt-ridden federal water project designed in the 1930s to buoy small farms. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates the water project and eventually must approve the water sale. This Tracy water sale would be among the first urban purchase of CVP farm water for millions of dollars. The city plans to buy 10,000 acre-feet of water, or roughly enough for 50,000 people. That’s about 50 percent more water than the city has currently. In return, the irrigation districts would get $10 million for water they would have bought each year for just $30 an acre-foot. The irrigation districts plan to use the profit to subsidize the water rates for their farmers.
Some critics of the sale of CVP water to cities have complained that the water isn’t the farmers’ to profit from, since taxpayers still are owed $1.8 billion for financing the water project. The water bought from the irrigation districts would come from the Delta-Mendota Canal, where the city already gets much of its water. That water is pumped from the Delta and sent to south Central Valley farms and cities.