After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Robert Frobose’s great-grandfather rebuilt his grocery store, then sold it and moved to Oakdale, where he began farming. “I was born into the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID),” said Frobose recently. “We still have one of my great grandfather’s ranches.”
A rice farmer, Frobose is keenly aware of his crop’s water needs. When he learned this year’s allocation of water for senior OID members would be 40 inches, he was immediately apprehensive.
“UC Davis says rice needs between 43 and 48 inches of water,” said Frobose recently. “I’m within those parameters.”
Earlier in the year, Frobose was one of over a hundred senior members of the OID to sign a petition protesting cuts in their water allocations while Tier II member Trinitas Partners was allocated 10 inches of OID surface water. When Frobose and other farmers protested that OID had broken a promise that annexation of Trinitas would have “no impact” on senior members of the district, OID General Manager Steve Knell responded that the complaints stemmed from a few “disgruntled farmers” and “water wasters.”
“I don’t waste water and neither does any farmer I know. If we overwater, it hurts the crop,” said Frobose when he heard about Knell’s comments. Frobose was so incensed about Knell’s “water wasters” claim that he showed up at Tuesday’s OID Board meeting with some barbed questions for board members and management.
“Can you grow rice on 40 inches of water?” he asked OID Board member Herman Dornenbal, who also grows rice.
“I think I can,” Dornenbal replied. “I’ve laser-leveled my land and made conservation measures. I also bought 120 acre-feet of water.”
Frobose wasn’t the only person in the OID boardroom who thought Dornenbal had contradicted himself by saying he had bought additional water to the 40 inch allocation.
“Having to buy water is an impact, and we were promised there would be no impacts,” said Frobose, but Dornenbal had had enough questions. “I’m sorry I started this conversation” he said. “Talking to you is an exercise in futility.”
Things got even worse when Frobose reminded Knell and the board that Trinitas spokesman Ryon Paton said at a recent public meeting that his almond trees need four and a half feet of water, much more than 40 inches.
Many observers think OID board members and management are offering a series of contradictory and self-serving statements in an attempt to deflect criticism from their contract with Trinitas. The statements may not make sense, but given OID’s dire financial straits it’s easy to see why OID leadership would rather avoid discussing its agreement with Trinitas Partners.
For well over a decade, the OID business plan depended on water sales outside the district. But OID didn’t sell water in 2014 and an attempted water sale this year was quashed when district management failed to perform due diligence required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The lost revenue put OID on track to lose at least $10 million this year, and that’s after losing millions last year. Though Trinitas pays only $55 an acre foot for its water, that’s far more than senior members of the district pay. With over 7,000 acres in the district, Trinitas swings enough financial weight to dictate policy to a district drowning in red ink.
In fact, OID’s contract agreement with Trinitas specifies that,
“The District shall not enter into water transfers or other arrangements that will result in a reduction in water available to the Property…unless the MWC [Trinitas] provides written consent to the District.”
In addition to giving Trinitas approval of water sales, OID carried Trinitas’ $2600 per acre annexation fee at three percent interest. In essence, Trinitas not only got a bargain-basement water rate and a sweetheart loan, it also bought the opportunity to dictate policy to a water-rich but dollar-poor water district.
No wonder OID doesn’t want to talk about the contract with Trinitas; doing so keeps in people’s memories what OID directors and management would like everyone to forget: OID needs Trinitas Partners more than it needs its senior members.