Last week, Stanislaus County’s Water Resources Manager Walt Ward circulated a letter from Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) General Manager Steve Knell. In the letter, Knell defended OID’s policy of selling water outside the region. He said the OID business plan depends on water sales and added that there is no local demand for OID water. He said even if there were such a demand, there’s no way to deliver the water to people who want it.
To people lacking knowledge of OID’s management history, Knell’s logic seemed faultless. But to anyone who’s followed OID’s recent attempts to sell water, Knell’s letter raises more questions than answers. For one thing, if OID depends on water sales outside the district, why does it consistently jeopardize those sales by failing to perform due diligence on requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)?
OID proposed a sale back in 2014. At the time, Knell said they needed to start the process early to meet CEQA requirements. Yet when OID came forward in 2015 with the sale proposal and an On-Farm Conservation Program (fallowing), CEQA requirements had been ignored. As a consequence, the sale was quashed when Oakdale farmer Louis Brichetto pointed out OID had not performed due diligence.
Later that year, OID conducted a water sale which Steve Knell admitted had been negotiated secretly. Naturally, none of these things were mentioned in Knell’s recent letter justifying OID water sales.
Knell also didn’t mention a series of rebukes and concerns from government agencies about OID’s current and past water sales and fallowing programs. One letter, from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, chastised Knell and OID for referring to previous water sales as “transfers.” A portion of the letter reads as follows:
“Reclamation also has concerns with the characterization of the 2009, 2013, and 2015 water sales as transfers. It is Reclamation’s understanding that OID, San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority (SLDMWA) and the State Water Contractors (SWC) entered into agreements in which OID agreed to deliver a smaller amount of water under the 1988 Agreement, creating a higher volume of water stored in New Melones Dam with which Reclamation could meet biological opinion and/or Water Quality Control Plan Requirements. These releases are not controlled under any water right once they are released from New Melones; therefore, they are not transfers.”
The Bureau’s letter (available here; scroll down) makes it clear that once OID abandoned its rights to water stored in New Melones, it could no longer call the water sales “transfers.” Given that OID water attorney Tim O’Laughlin frequently characterizes himself as one of the west’s foremost water attorneys, OID’s abandonment of rights and sloppy language should raise eyebrows everywhere.
It’s likely that OID prefers secrecy and obfuscation to transparency because it wishes to avoid the costs of CEQA-required Environmental Impact Reviews (EIRs). Deduct the costs of EIRs and attorney fees from OIDs bargain-basement sale prices to Westlands Water District—typically three- to four-hundred dollars an acre foot, in periods when water prices hit well over four figures the acre foot—and the sales would seem much less desirable.
Even newly-elected OID Board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri have said they haven’t been given clear explanations of OID’s proposed fallowing programs. But since the election, remaining OID directors and management seem more committed than ever to hidden agendas.
For most people, obfuscation, secrecy, equivocation, and contempt for the concerns of democratically-elected board members constitute violations of the public trust. Nonetheless, current OID management seems more determined than ever to muddy the waters. They may succeed for the short term, but come next election, it’s very likely they will find that same muddy water is way, way over their heads.