The biggest local water story in 2015 was the ongoing attempt by the Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) to sell water outside the region. The saga began almost exactly a year ago when Oakdale farmer Louis Brichetto quashed an OID water sale by pointing out the district had failed to follow proper protocols for the California Environmental Quality Act prior to the sale.
From that point forward, OID found itself embroiled in a series of disputes about whether or not it actually had surplus water to sell. When OID opened the irrigation season by informing longtime customers their water allotments were to be cut even while delivering water to newly annexed Trinitas Partners, rice farmer Bob Frobose protested that OID had broken promises made to senior members of the district when Trinitas was annexed into the district in 2012. Dozens of farmers agreed.
During OID Board meetings, Frobose and other farmers were dismissed with ever-mounting contempt. The upshot was a movement to unseat longtime board members Frank Clark and Al Bairos.
When Gail Altieri and Linda Santos announced they would challenge Clark and Bairos, few insiders gave them much of a chance in the upcoming election. Clark and Bairos were seen as staunch supporters of OID’s policy of providing water to farmers below the cost of delivery, and given that OID had more water than virtually any district in the region, most observers felt the challengers were overmatched.
The election dynamic changed dramatically when news got out that OID had conducted a secret water sale which sent 23,000 acre feet of OID water to the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority. Coming as it did just before the election, the 11.5 million dollar deal confirmed claims that OID has long had a hidden agenda unbefitting a public agency.
Despite Altieri’s and Santos’ overwhelming support at the polls—neither of their opponents reached forty percent of the total vote—no one should expect significant changes in OID policy. General Manager Steve Knell and board members Steve Webb, Gary Osmundson, and Herman Doornebal remain committed to their policy of selling water outside the region.
What it most likely means for the northern San Joaquin Valley and especially for the Oakdale Irrigation District is more lawsuits and escalating rancor. Already this year, old guard OID board members and management have had a run-in with Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien over his appointment of Altieri to the Stanislaus Water Advisory Committee.
Like many others in the San Joaquin Valley, OID’s management refuses to accept the twenty-first century command for sustainability. The twentieth century notion of “surplus water” was a flawed concept based on fundamental misunderstandings of ecology, groundwater, and historic weather patterns. The tens of thousands of acres of permanent nut crops on land with few or no surface water rights are the most concrete evidence of just how flawed it was.
Nonetheless, as long as Steve Knell and board members Doornenbal, Webb, and Osmundson refuse to change OID’s outdated water policy, legal and political options are the only means for reform.