Only a few days ago, it seemed as if the Oakdale Irrigation District’s (OID) “On Farm Conservation Funding Program” was likely to be instituted as early as this year. Though it features a controversial fallowing element, criticism of the program has been muted by a well-orchestrated publicity campaign conducted through press releases produced by former Modesto Bee editor Dave Lyghtle, who now works for Marcia Hermann Design.
The Oakdale Irrigation District pays Marcia Hermann Design $165 an hour to promote OID programs and policies. Lyghtle’s press releases appear virtually verbatim and without attribution or disclaimer in the Oakdale Leader. They are also featured in The Pipeline, OID’s slick newsletter.
Despite Lyghtle’s glowing reports, it now appears the On Farm Conservation Funding Program is no longer on the fast track to approval. Yesterday, OID directors and management received notice that their highly-touted program has failed to observe guidelines established by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
In a nine page letter from the Remy, Moose, and Manley law partnership, attorney Howard Wilkins notified the OID Board of Directors that,
“it appears that OID does not propose to conduct any environmental review prior to committing to the Individual Landowner Agreements and moving forward with the Project. Neither the Individual Landowner Agreements nor the Project fall within any exemption to CEQA. Therefore…we respectfully request the OID Board of Directors (“Board”) refrain from taking any action on Agenda Item No. 15 or any further actions that would commit OID to the Project until CEQA review is complete.”
Remy, Moose, and Manley were retained by Oakdale farmer Louis Brichetto, who has long maintained that irrigation district water should not be sold outside the region.
On December 9 of last year, Brichetto urged OID Directors to consider keeping water saved from the On Farm Conservation Funding Program within the district’s sphere of influence. Nonetheless, OID has continued to pursue sales to water contractors and districts outside the region.
“No business succeeds by selling its greatest asset,” said Brichetto about the CEQA inquiry. “My family has been here since 1850. We just want to see that the land remains as good as it’s always been.”
Brichetto isn’t the only person concerned about water sales outside the region. Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow has long maintained that “the key to groundwater is surface water.” Withrow has urged the OID to seek ways to keep local water local.
During yesterday’s OID Board Meeting, there was no indication Board members were yet aware of Mr. Wilkins’ letter. Despite Wilkins’ request that board members refrain from taking action, Item 15 (the On Farm Conservation Funding Program) was approved with little discussion. Nonetheless, it’s almost a certainty OID will be forced to respond with an Environmental Impact Review or face severe consequences. In similar cases, failure to respond has resulted in court injunctions.
Given the severity of our ongoing drought, Valley citizens can only gain from inquiries into water usage. Especially since the imposition of new state rules on groundwater, the implications of water sales have become crucially important. The more light shed on the effects of fallowing land and selling water the better, especially for those who suffer a diminished quality of life when water is commodified.
Next: OID CEQA Review Will Change the Water Game
J.N. Sbranti says
To see how the Oakdale Irrigation District spends its money and the generous compensation General Manager Steve Knell and the five directors receive, check out this California State website:
OID General Manager Steve Knell’s compensation has climbed from $171,665 in 2009 to $213,981 in 2013. That’s a $42,316 pay boost during one of the region’s worst recessions. Not bad for a public employee. Wonder what Knell collected in 2014 and what he’ll collect this year.
OID directors, meanwhile, on average collected nearly $21,000 in wages and benefits EACH during 2013. That doesn’t count the Oakdale Country Club lunches they treated themselves to twice a month.
One of those five directors hasn’t attended an OID meeting in more than six months, but he continues to collect his pay and benefits. Rumor is he lives in Oregon these days. Is that legal?
Assuming he vacates his seat, there will be three OID directors up for election this November. That’s a board majority.
Eric Caine says
Nice link. Might be fun to find out how much Mr. O’Laughlin is billing OID as well. He appears to have dropped the ball on CEQA but will probably stretch things out during the inquiry.