A petition asks irrigation leaders to reverse a decision benefiting a corporate nut grower at small farmers’ expense.
“This petition is filling up faster than our irrigation canals,” said Robert Frobose. He and other longtime Oakdale Irrigation District customers would prefer that the district withhold water during the drought from newer customers, including megagrower Trinitas Partners.
The complaint centers on promises made when OID in 2013 absorbed 7,300 acres acquired by Trinitas for almond orchards between Oakdale and Knights Ferry. Existing customers say they were lulled into not opposing the annexation because the district assured them that Trinitas could get OID water only if others had enough to spare.
Last week, the OID board – for the first time in its 105-year history – imposed a cap of 30 inches of water per parcel, leaving many customers wondering if they’ll get enough to make their crops grow. At the same time, the board approved delivering 10 inches to so-called Tier 2 customers, or Trinitas and others that joined OID in the past couple of years.
Before the vote, Frobose and another audience member reminded the board of OID’s 2013 promise, but said their concerns were brushed aside.
“If we can’t trust them to keep their word in this agreement, what can we trust them to do?” Frobose said Wednesday.
OID General Manager Steve Knell said Tier 2 deliveries make good business sense. That Stanislaus River water will reduce the groundwater that Trinitas and others must pump to keep trees alive, and Tier 2 customers pay a higher rate, bringing OID about $800,000 this year, he said.
“Some folks seem a little myopic,” Knell said.
A review of previous documents supports protesters’ memories:
▪ “OID will not provide water to Trinitas if OID does not have a full allotment of water from New Melones,” reads a district response to a question posed during an October 2012 public hearing.
While OID gets 300,000 acre-feet of water from the reservoir in a normal year, the district anticipates only 225,000 acre-feet this season, prompting this year’s historic restriction. “Tier 1 customers are not receiving their full allocation,” the current petition notes.
▪ “There will be no impact to existing customers” in dry years thanks to specific contract language between OID and Trinitas, reads a July 2013 Stanislaus Local Agency Formation Commission report, repeated several times with similar language.
That panel approved OID’s request to draw Trinitas into district borders. Others have joined OID since, bringing Tier 2 acreage to 10,000, compared with established customers’ 52,000 acres.
If OID doesn’t give water to new customers, Tier 1 would get another inch of water, Knell said, and Trinitas and others would be forced to pump more groundwater. Trinitas had 24 huge wells in 2013; at that time, the company predicted needing about 21,000 acre-feet of water by 2015.
Petitioners contend that the Trinitas arrangement “will only shift the pumping expense from Tier 2 customers to Tier 1 customers,” who will have to augment their water supplies. “It’s not going to save us any water from the aquifer,” the petition reads.
Ryon Paton, one of three Trinitas principal owners, said the company recently received a small amount of OID water “to test a new system we were putting in. But we’re not currently watering with OID water – not that we would turn it down.”
In 2013, the company agreed to pay OID $19 million in installments over the years for the right to annex, plus $55 for each acre-foot of water. Tier 1 customers are paying $27 per parcel; all customers also will pay a $6.10 per-acre drought surcharge.
Because Trinitas pays more for water than anyone else, its arrangement is “good for OID, good for the community and good for us,” Paton said.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.