Secret water sale complaints spill into Oakdale Irrigation board meeting

Irrigation leaders agreed to refund drought surcharges paid by farmers this year, an action that was overshadowed Tuesday by a dispute over a recently unveiled sale of water to outsiders.

“You’re selling water but not giving the public an opportunity to rebut,” Lisa Vandermeer said. “The people who pay taxes should have an opportunity to question this.”

She referred to last week’s announcement that the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts have agreed to sell 23,000 acre-feet of Stanislaus River water for $11.5 million to the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. That agency’s 29 member agencies include Westlands Water District of Fresno County.

If you guys wanted to notify the public about this, why didn’t you have the water sale in a public meeting?

Robert Frobose, questioning an advertisement in The Modesto Bee sponsored by OID to dispute a Bee report

OID has taken heat for telling customers to conserve while negotiating in secret to shop water elsewhere, and for enriching the district while neighboring farmers and districts struggle in the drought. On Tuesday, OID attorney Tim O’Laughlin said the Del Puerto Irrigation District on Stanislaus County’s west side will get 1,000 acre-feet in the deal.

O’Laughlin also explained that state and federal agencies might have used the same water to cool Stanislaus River temperatures for fish with no compensation to OID and SSJID. Lengthy negotiations satisfied wildlife interests and avoided lawsuits while bringing cash to the local districts, he said.

“What in the hell is wrong with making money?” customer Barney Leard said, defending the water transfer. “If the board is smart enough to get money for it, that’s a plus on their side.”

Oakdale Councilman Tom Dunlop congratulated the board and its lawyers for successful “maneuvering.” Customer John Brichetto noted that OID’s budget relies on outside water sales, saying they should come as no surprise. “The whole community needs to work together rather than all this infighting,” he said.

If you guys wanted to notify the public about this, why didn’t you have the water sale in a public meeting?

Robert Frobose, questioning an advertisement in The Modesto Bee sponsored by OID to dispute a Bee report

Others objected to a secretive strategy affording zero public input. That has been a campaign issue in board races heading toward the Nov. 3 ballot, raised by candidates Linda Santos and Gail Altieri, although neither spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. They are challenging board members Al Bairos and Frank Clark, respectively.

“You find out after the fact” about important decisions, said cattle rancher Ken Krause, made with “no input from the people who own the district – the water users.”

Vandermeer said, “I’m sure you guys work hard. The point is, the public should know what’s going on.”

Grower Robert Frobose noted that Clark had stridently urged open discussions about potential water sales before he joined the board in 2000. Official minutes of a meeting that year quote Clark as having said, “Without the benefit of public comment on whether you should or should not be selling our water, and all the ramifications it presents, how can you possibly be meeting in closed session to discuss prices and terms of (the) sale of water? That is, unless the board has already made up its mind to sell water without even the slightest public interest.”

We need to have confidence and trust in our board of directors that can only be built on mutual respect and openness and equal participation in this decision-making process.

Frank Clark in comments to OID board made in November 2000, two years before he was elected

The minutes also quote Clark as threatening the board with a formal complaint, and saying, “If the public discusses and we all think it’s a great idea to sell the water, the board can have a closed session, set the terms and prices and go about your business. Don’t do it before the people have had an opportunity to have input. That is what the Brown Act is about; to make sure that people have an opportunity to have comment and input on what this board does.”

In other comments, horse rancher Travis Dovala suggested that OID put on its Web page background information for board meetings. Bairos asked for future discussion on “how to get information out to our constituents,” including more online and mailed material and night meetings that might prompt more public participation.

The board’s 5-0 vote to refund the drought surcharge has nothing to do with its $5.75 million share of the water sale. The surcharge had collected $415,000 to cover anticipated costs of pumping groundwater to augment the river supply, but farmers ended up using much less than expected, requiring less pumping, OID General Manager Steve Knell said.

Records show 18,300 acre-feet pumped last year from OID deep wells, compared with 12,500 acre-feet this year.

Frobose noted that the amount is similar to the district’s 11,500 acre-foot share of the recent water sale. Critics have castigated OID for drawing on aquifers to make up for river water shopped elsewhere, while OID says groundwater is pumped to increase delivery efficiency.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390