Tim O’Laughlin wanted to leave and Larry Byrd wouldn’t let him. O’Laughlin had come to last Wednesday’s Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee (WAC) meeting to review likely consequences of new state flow requirements for rivers on local agriculture and irrigation districts.
Most audience members were familiar with the new requirements, and knew they would have severe economic impacts on the local economy. Things got hot for O’Laughlin when the subject of Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) water sales came up during a review of the proposed Stanislaus County Groundwater Ordinance. O’Laughlin is the OID’s attorney.
Oakdale farmer Louis Brichetto was particularly incensed that he couldn’t get annexed into the Oakdale Irrigation District despite a cash offer.
“I’ve offered $3 million dollars cash and I can’t get in,” he said. “I was in line before Trinitas and it’s not fair they get in before I do.”
OID farmers aren’t the only people unhappy with O’Laughlin and OID General Manager Steve Knell. Knell has a long history of favoring water sales outside the district, and continues to do so even as the worst drought in memory has local farmers increasingly desperate for water relief.
Though he’s a cattle man at heart, Larry Byrd is a defender of anyone who’s a neighbor—even almond farmers who’ve covered former grazing land with trees. He’s a walking advertisement for the cowboy way of life, and has the direct gaze and blunt candor of someone who’s spent much more time on horseback than in an office chair.
Byrd, who serves on the Modesto Irrigation District Board of Directors, went off when Stanislaus County Water Resources Manager Walt Ward was reviewing what may come to be known as the “OID rule” in the new groundwater ordinance. The passage reads as follows:
“‘Export of water’ means the act of conveying groundwater, or surface water for which groundwater has been substituted out of the County”
“I want to make sure that’s clear,” said Byrd, who had apparently lost his place in the text. “We have to make sure that’s what we mean.”
After Ward assured Byrd the meaning was clear, Byrd lit into O’Laughlin.
“Wait a minute Tim,” Byrd said when O’Laughlin said he had another engagement. “It would be very complimentary to the Oakdale community if you kept that water [the water OID sells] in the community. We need to take care of our own water right here.”
As O’Laughlin continued to make moves to leave, Byrd went on:
“I see you pushing your chair back, but you know I’m not happy with Oakdale selling that water when their neighbors are knocking on their door and asking for that water and saying, ‘When do I write that check?’ We need to take care of our community.”
Byrd’s words echoed those of Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow, who earlier had said to O’Laughlin,
“You have some water. Why don’t you sell it here in our own county? I know we’ve got guys on the east side who would pay for a reliable source.”
Though he’s the OID attorney, O’Laughlin said he couldn’t speak for the OID. He went on to say that lack of infrastructure made moving water to the county’s east side infeasible. In a room full of people who rarely agree on anything, O’Laughlin seemed able only to unite a consensus against water sales outside the region.
By the time O’Laughlin left, most everyone would probably have agreed with Louis Brichetto:
“I just offered $3 million cash,” he said again, “and they wouldn’t take it. It doesn’t make sense.”