In a move very likely to revive local controversies and bitter memories, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) water attorney Tim O’Laughlin has been hired by Trinitas Partners to manage its huge Hawaiian farming operation in Maui, where it’s known as “Mahi Pono.”
Now an entity with too many names and subsidiaries to list, Trinitas/Mahi Pono recently purchased 56,000 acres in Maui for $267 million from sugar cane growers Alexander & Baldwin. As was the case when Trinitas was annexed into the Oakdale Irrigation District in 2013, Mahi Pono’s arrival on Maui has been clouded by controversy.
The most pressing issue for many on Maui is that Mahi Pono’s purchase of Ag land could also bring it almost total control over a huge share of the island’s fresh water. As is the case most everywhere in the arid west, fears that private control of public resources will result in lasting damage to the public trust are escalating as water becomes scarcer and more expensive almost daily.
Many local farmers and interested observers believe Trinitas was given a sweetheart deal when annexed because it was allowed twenty years to pay annexation fees at 3% interest, among other benefits. Now, OID’s water attorney at the time of annexation has been hired to manage Trinitas’s operation in Maui. O’Laughlin’s official title is Chief Operating Officer.
The founder of the Paris and O’Laughlin law firm, which represents several San Joaquin Valley entities on water issues as well as OID, O’Laughlin has said that he will remain affiliated with the law firm after he moves to Maui full-time. Even in the labyrinthine and incestuous world of western water, O’Laughlin’s new position is bound to raise eyebrows and foster inquiries.
Fresh off two court losses to the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance, O’Laughlin’s frequent collisions with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and creative circumlocutions of the law to promote water sales were clearly no problem for Trinitas/Mahi Pono. Instead, the man many Valley locals refer to as a water broker has most likely been hired to smooth Mahi’s Pono’s rough path to control of water rights for its massive farm operation.
Given ongoing legal problems for OID’s programs to promote water sales outside the region and Trinita’s still-controversial place in the district’s hierarchy of water users, O’Laughlin’s new position is bound to raise questions about conflicts of interest. But as long as the OID Board of Directors continues to include three members who follow to the letter O’Laughlin’s directives on water, there’s likely to be little change in district water policy.
The chief issue for in-district farmers in Oakdale has been and remains the opportunity to receive irrigation water for prices below the cost of delivery. Whether the attorney who helps that happen has a conflict of interest is irrelevant to them and therefore irrelevant to the board members under their control, and the same metric applies to Trinitas/Mahi Pono. Tim O’Laughlin’s job is to keep the water coming, and thus far he’s been able to do that, hence the expansion of his influence and power.