Did Candidate Keating’s Biggest Donor Sell MID Water?

It was probably only a coincidence that Frank Damrell and Robert Frobose were chatting in front of an outdoor bulletin board that read “Modesto Irrigation District Public Information” on Tuesday, October 11.

Damrell and Frobose had just come out of a meeting of the Modesto Irrigation District (MID) Board of Directors. Both are running for seats on the Board, Damrell in District 2 and Frobose in District 3. They attended the meeting because one of the agenda items concerned a public records request for information about possible sales of MID water by a private entity. In other words, they were seeking public information.

In 1983, Mapes Ranch, also known as Lyons Investments, entered in an agreement with MID that entitled Mapes Ranch to MID water that passed through the district’s irrigation canals without being picked up by rate-paying farmers. Variously known as “tailwater, spill water or ‘gift water,’” the water was free of charge.

Last July, Lucas Law Firm sent a letter to MID requesting public records relevant to water sales by Mapes Ranch to the Del Puerto Water District in 2021. The public records request was based on,

The compelling interest in ensuring the District is achieving its ‘main purpose…to develop, preserve and conserve water for the beneficial use of the inhabitants.” (City of Modesto v. Modesto Irrigation Dist. (1973) 34 Cal.App.3d 504,507.)

The letter was a second attempt to examine records related to the sale. The first attempt resulted in a threat of litigation by Mapes Ranch. Initially, MID Directors seemed to be agreeable to Mapes Ranch’s desire to keep details of MID water deliveries sealed from public inquiry. Subsequently, it became clear that MID didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the details of the sale to provide a complete description of exactly what happens to district water once it reaches the ranch.

Frank Damrell and Robert Frobose 11 Oct 22 Modesto Irrigation District
Frank Damrell and Robert Frobose

At the October 11 meeting, Frobose stood before the MID Board and argued it was in the public interest to release records relevant to the sale of district water. Damrell took  notes.

On advice of MID attorneys, Boardmembers met in closed session to debate disclosure of the records. After much discussion, the vote was 4-1 to release the records. The Board agreed to a week’s delay so that Mapes Ranch could develop a response to the release.

Late last Wednesday, MID released 127 pages of records summarizing water deliveries to Mapes Ranch. Somewhere in that blizzard of data there may be answers to questions posed by Lucas Law, but the public shouldn’t have to sift through huge drifts of data to get answers to questions directly related to the public interest.

Among the most pertinent of those questions, the central issue is how or to what degree the commodification and sale of MID water by a private entity (Mapes Ranch) benefits MID ratepayers. MID may not wish to answer that question, at least not publicly. In the best case, MID has to address the fact that “tail” or “spill” water that reaches the Mapes Ranch is public water that hasn’t been properly conserved.

The monetary benefit to Mapes Ranch from the Del Puerto Water District has been significant. The preliminary agreement provides for delivery of up to 10,000-acre feet of water at cost of $425 an acre foot. Extending the agreement at that rate, Mapes Ranch could realize a quick $8.5 million through the sale of a resource that may rightfully belong to MID ratepayers. Mapes Ranch has already sold over 6,000 acre-feet of water under terms of the Del Puerto agreement.

Further complicating the matter, MID’s “Farmer-to-Farmer” agreement specifies that transfers of MID water between local farmers must remain within the district’s sphere of influence. While Del Puerto Water District is outside the MID, some portions could be in the MID sphere of influence. In that case, MID would have to have knowledge of the exact destination of transferred water in order to enforce terms of the Farmer-to-Farmer agreement.

Some observers suspect Mapes Ranch may be selling groundwater in lieu of MID surface water. Because of its location near the confluence of three major rivers, Mapes Ranch has an abundance of groundwater. However, Stanislaus County has an ordinance prohibiting sales of groundwater outside the county. Del Puerto Water District encompasses Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced Counties.

The Lucas Letter also raises the question of whether MID Boardmember Stu Gilman has acted in the interest of Mapes Ranch as a result of campaign contributions from Mapes Ranch and Lyons Investments. Gilman was a leading proponent the Farmer-to-Farmer program.

Robert Frobose MID Board Meeting 11 Oct 22
Robert Frobose 11 October 2022

Among current candidates for the MID Board, Janice Keating is thus far the prime beneficiary of contributions from Mapes Ranch and Lyons Investments. Keating, along with Mapes Ranch, was a proponent of MID water sales to San Francisco in 2011. Those sales were squelched by a huge public outcry against selling local water.

At best, MID water that goes unused and ends up as a windfall for the Mapes Ranch represents a failure to fulfill the district’s mission to “conserve water.” The public loses twice: First, it loses use of the water. Second, it loses any chance to correct the errors of poor management through the district’s failure to provide transparency about the volumes of water “spilled” or “gifted” to Mapes Ranch.

The public should not be forced to litigate and pay for transparency regarding issues of public interest. Rather, the public interest requires that uses of public water by private parties should be as clear and translucent as the snowmelt that enters mountain streams in the high Sierra.

Transparency is the first leg in the foundation of public interest. The other two are truth and trust. The public is abused when public resources are usurped and exploited by private interests, but that’s exactly what happens when private interests or factions gain control of public boards of directors.

Frank Damrell and Robert Frobose were the only current candidates for the MID Board who showed up to support transparency about possible sales of MID water. Like Stu Gilman, MID Board Candidate Janice Keating has a history both of favoring MID water sales and receiving large campaign contributions from Mapes Ranch and Lyons Investments. She is running against Frank Damrell in District 2.

Voters who favor transparency, truth and trust in matters of the public interest should keep these facts in mind. Ready access to information about the uses of public resources should be among the chief duties of any public utility.

MID employees, the people on the ground, support Damrell and Frobose. They support John Boer, Stu Gilman’s opponent in the upcoming election. That support should be a major signal to voters wondering who to vote for in what has become a major test of the public trust.


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. Hello my name is James Hatch I live in the Modesto area district. My question is why does a ranch that’s already very asset rich and probly has plenty of cash get Gifted water? So I’m wondering why we as the public people have to burden this free water gifted to a private property and pay essential for a public person to have special privileges to not pay for water. Irrigation or not. I can barley pay my water bill . As it is and 2 years had it shut off for a 400 a dollar bill. To me this seems like another favoritism alloted to the wealthier prominent family’s of settlement errors. We all shod be treated equal. I wasn’t given a week to get my bill covered. Anyways thanks for bringing the story to light.

  2. Public water that has NOT been properly preserved/conserved, is A MAIN ISSUE.

    ALTHOUGH, the plot does appear to be thickening, despite it being watered all down hill, for certain entities.

    If this turns out to be what it appears to be, who are the two people least likely to end up on the MID board? If it does not get cleared up immediately, imagine that couple, putting their heads together against “the preservation/conservation” of local water, if voted on the MID board. Imagine even one of them on the MID board after, Nov. 8, 2022.

    MID board voted 4/1 in favor of releasing Mapes Ranch records, BUT which trusted independent body has oversight that all of the pages of records are turned over for inspection, and, NOT previously edited. Who had chain of custody prior to the vote and after? Asking out of our need to preserve the record, AND, local water, for ALL rightful owners/users.

    I cannot say any of this has changed my vote. After watching the candidates Q&A online, I detected certain questionable, may I say, shortcomings.

    Looking forward to seeing this through to a logical conclusion. The end NEVER justifies the means. I can NOT fathom Mapes Ranch being gifted time by MID to respond, especially with the election so close, any more than I can condone MID gifting Mapes Ranch ANY amount of unpaid for water, especially in a drought torn region, with water SO commodified, with NOT much logical excuse.

    After all, Mapes Ranch has abundant money enough to throw around on very questionable candidates, who do not appear to make logical sense for MID, or other positions, past or future.

Comments are closed.