News

Grower says Oakdale Irrigation District broke state law with secret water sale

Robert Frobose said he was unsure if he would plant rice back in April due to cutbacks in water from the Oakdale Irrigation District. A formal complaint from Frobose accuses the OID board of deceiving the public.
Robert Frobose said he was unsure if he would plant rice back in April due to cutbacks in water from the Oakdale Irrigation District. A formal complaint from Frobose accuses the OID board of deceiving the public. aalfaro@modbee.com

Irrigation leaders illegally agreed to sell Stanislaus River water to outsiders, an Oakdale Irrigation District customer alleges in a formal complaint.

If the OID board refuses to “cure and correct the illegal action” within 30 days, Robert Frobose could pursue a lawsuit to force a more transparent transaction, he says in the complaint.

The district has explained the deal in meetings, a news release and an Oct. 18 advertisement in The Modesto Bee. Its attorney was not reached Monday for comment on the complaint.

Challengers in the Nov. 3 race for two board seats have accused OID of telling farmers to conserve while secretly negotiating to sell excess water to wealthy Fresno-area buyers. The deal was unveiled two weeks ago with no public discussion or vote in Oakdale.

OID leaders conspired to hide the truth by negotiating in secret and taking a vote in Manteca on an obscure agenda item that failed to “mention anything clearly about a water sale” while sitting as directors of the Tri-Dam Project, Frobose said.

It appears that this wasn’t just an accidental Brown Act violation, but a carefully crafted plan to circumvent the Brown Act.

Robert Frobose in formal complaint

“It appears that this wasn’t just an accidental Brown Act violation, but a carefully crafted plan to circumvent the Brown Act and to keep this away from the public having the ability to comment,” Frobose says in an addendum.

Further, OID and its partner on the Stanislaus, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, are clearly listed on the contract as the sellers – not Tri-Dam, which has no authority to sell water, Frobose noted. After the initial Tri-Dam action on Aug. 20, SSJID separately ratified its part of the vote in public, but OID did no such thing.

The districts 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.

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, their lawyer has said.

“Yes, we negotiate behind closed doors because that is what the law allows all public agencies to do,” read part of OID’s advertisement. “To insinuate this somehow is wrong is admission of ignorance of public policy and practice.”

OID runs its business like a business. Those who don’t understand that will never understand why OID does what it does.

Oct. 18 advertisement in The Modesto Bee

A few OID agendas this year have described private board negotiations, but leaders kept terms to themselves while openly saying they had no water to sell. For example, the board in April blamed the drought and a legal challenge for canceling a proposed transfer to the same Fresno-area agency.

At the same April meeting, farmer Brian Lemons asked about a closed-door negotiation notice. OID General Manager Steve Knell indicated that the Del Puerto Irrigation District had explored buying OID water, and board member Frank Clark characterized the private session as a formality required when a buyer submits an inquiry.

“We’re not going to sell any water, Mr. Lemons,” board Chairman Steve Webb said at the time.

Just before the deal was made public two weeks ago, Knell told The Bee it was decided to handle the matter at the Tri-Dam level, saying, “It would not be good politics for us (to discuss publicly) because people are going to ask questions.”

Asked whether Tri-Dam had the authority to consummate such a sale, Knell said, “This is the nuance of Tri-Dam,” and explained that the districts share one water right. “Nobody is overstepping the legal requirements,” he said, adding, “When you have a Tri-Dam meeting, it’s really a board meeting of OID and a board meeting of SSJID.”

The Aug. 20 Tri-Dam agenda listed “a fall water release in cooperation with state and federal agencies,” with no mention of terms.

“How would the public have known that this item was relating to a water sale, especially given the fact that Tri-Dam has no water to sell?” Frobose’s addendum reads.

Del Puerto will receive a 1,000 acre-foot share in the deal, which was heralded by state and federal agencies, OID said last week.

Frobose’s complaint cites “what I believe was a substantial violation” of the Brown Act because the OID board failed to provide notice of a vote on the deal, effectively preventing public input, and never actually voted on it.

He demands that OID “immediately withdraw” from transferring its 11,500 acre-feet of water in the deal. Also, OID must “provide the public with the awareness and the opportunity to comment,” as well as reasons each board member voted as he did, the complaint demands.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

Related stories from Modesto Bee

  Comments