“Petitioner has bestowed an important public benefit,” says Judge.
Imagine tossing 2130 hundred dollar bills into the Stanislaus River to see how long they will float. Sounds crazy, but the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) did something almost as foolish when it decided to contest a suit brought forward by the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance (OGA). The suit was in response to OID’s failure to provide an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) for its proposed fallowing program.
Several months prior to OGA’s suit, OID water attorney Tim O’Laughlin had already admitted that, according to guidelines imposed by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a similar program needed an EIR. Nonetheless, OID management and board members decided to play what most everyone knew was a losing hand.
They did so despite the objections of newly-elected board members Gail Altieri and Linda Santos, both of whom suggested OID interests would be better served by following the rules. But instead of listening to Altieri and Santos, board members Steve Webb, Herman Doornenbal and Gary Osmundson decided to proceed with the lawsuit; as a consequence, in addition to paying their own attorneys, they had to pay OGA’s attorneys’ fees of $213, 593.
OID management should have gotten a clue when the OGA retained Soluri Meserve, a law firm known throughout the west as experts on CEQA and land use. OID should also have realized that in CEQA cases where an agency is egregiously at fault, the agency must pay the opposing litigant’s attorneys’ fees.
Of course, OID board members and management have a long history of recklessly spending public money without consequences. The district’s business plan depends on selling water to buyers outside the region so it can charge local farmers prices that are actually below the costs of delivery.
The practice jeopardizes groundwater reserves and amounts to an enormous subsidy for the district’s largest and wealthiest landowners, who have maintained favored status by controlling a majority on the OID Board of Directors.
A few years back, the Modesto Bee revealed that OID management had avoided a state requirement to revise the district map because of population growth. Most observers felt it was a clear case of negligent gerrymandering, so that OID could retain board members in favor of water sales. The district finally produced a new map earlier this year, but only after a civil grand jury blasted it for failure to follow state guidelines.
Altieri and Santos campaigned on promises of transparency and a willingness to consider negotiation instead of litigation. Both have been routinely harassed and belittled by their fellow board members, who seem dedicated to preserving the status quo.
OID’s case was so weak that OID attorneys got lectured by Judge Roger Beauchesne for relying on ad hominem arguments. The judge also agreed with Soluri and Meserve that OID’s reliance on an inappropriate legal precedence was in this case, “wholly misplaced.”
Last Thursday, OGA litigant Louis Brichetto called the decision, “a victory for our local groundwater basin.” Judge Beauchesne obviously agreed, writing that,
“Finally, the Court concludes the Petitioner has bestowed an important public benefit through the lawsuit specifically because it prioritized the availability of surface water for the local area (even if outside of Oakdale Irrigation District’s direct boundaries), which reduces negative environmental effects associated with overreliance on groundwater, among other impacts.”
Despite the judge’s emphatic rejections of OID’s arguments, there are rumors the district might appeal the decision. While such a move would be yet another case of tossing money into the Stanislaus River, OID’s good old boy board members and management don’t mind—after all, it’s other people’s money they’re sending down the river, not their own.
In that regard, they seem to agree with William Henry Vanderbilt when he famously said, “The public be damned.” It’s a sad state of affairs for a region that is justifiably proud of its farming and ranching tradition.
Oakdale likes to call itself, the “Cowboy Capitol of the World,” but the prime rule of the cowboy code says, “A cowboy must never take unfair advantage.” Using public money to advance the interests of a few wealthy farmers is clear case of taking, “unfair advantage.”
With board elections coming in November, it will be interesting to see whether OID’s incumbent directors retain their unfair advantage over OID ratepayers and voters. If they do, Oakdale can quit talking about being the “Cowboy Capitol” and start thinking about new motto, something like, “The Public be Damned.”
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.