Tuesday morning, by a 3-2 vote, the Oakdale Irrigation District Board of Directors (OID) approved a proposal to sell $10 million of surplus water outside the district. As usual, the two directors against the proposal were Gail Altieri and Linda Santos, who have the singular distinction of having been sued by their own board, not long after both were elected by overwhelming margins in 2015.
Tuesday’s meeting featured the usual blinding blizzard of numbers regarding acre feet of water everywhere from Lake Beardsley to Vernalis and points between, but the message from OID water attorney Tim O’Laughlin was the same as it’s been for years: Sell your water or watch it go down the river as you count the lost dollars.
Santos argued that since OID lost close to $600,000 dollars in a lawsuit involving water sales last year, it would be prudent to perform an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) this year, since conditions for the sale appeared similar to last year’s proposal. O’Laughlin and Director Herman Doornenbal argued, as they did last year, that this is a one-time sale and thus exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
The “one-time sale” argument has become something of a joke among regulars who follow OID history. It’s been made for years, and last year a judge pointed out plenty of evidence showing OID has an ongoing pattern of “one-time only” water sales. In fact, the OID budget can’t be balanced without water sales, and the repeated yearly attempts at a “one-time sale” attest to that fact.
Robert Frobose, a member of the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance (OGA), has argued that OID’s tactics to avoid Environmental Impact Reviews, which sometimes include temporarily abandoning their water rights, jeopardize future water supplies. Frobose said Tuesday that because of such past practices, OID won’t be able to defend itself when the state decides to take OID water away for fish flows. He said that O’Laughlin doesn’t want the state to know what OID is doing, but it’s foolish to think the state isn’t watching. Last year, OGA prevailed in the costly suit Santos fears could be repeated.
Frobose also reminded OID Directors that in his written decision against the district, Judge Roger Beauchesne commended OGA for performing a “public service” by filing the lawsuit. A significant part of the lawsuit involved effects on groundwater of shipping water out of the district.
Both Doornenbal and newly-elected director Brad DeBoer spoke convincingly of the need to address groundwater recharge requirements because of increasingly more demanding requirements from California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Both favored water sales within the district’s sphere of influence as one way of addressing SGMA regulations, yet neither seemed to fear the legal consequences of another lawsuit protesting OID’s failure to assess effects on groundwater by sales far outside the district.
At one point, Director Santos, remarked, “I’m not a CEQA expert, but it seems like we’d be better off if we developed a CEQA policy so we didn’t have to go through this every year.”
Tim O’Laughlin replied, “Well I am a CEQA expert,” and went on to explain his position in favor of water sale. He and the directors who supported the water sale seemed oblivious to previous court losses involving failure to meet CEQA requirements, as well as to the points made in a letter Frobose submitted to the board prior to the meeting.They seemed to be daring OGA and other entities to sue them again. Since OGA was awarded attorney fees last year, along with a commendation for public service, another lawsuit would seem likely. O’Laughlin and OID seem to be begging for it.
About The Author
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.