Farmers who contracted to fallow some land this year will get their money even though no one bought the freed-up water, irrigation leaders said Tuesday.
In other news, Oakdale Irrigation District water prices won’t go up 3 percent in 2017, the board said.
The fallowing proposal never got off the ground but sparked two lawsuits, threats of more lawsuits, much discord among board members and ongoing disputes over who was to blame for the project’s demise.
The board on Tuesday agreed, despite rancor among themselves, that the project’s failure was no fault of the dozens of growers who had signed 59 fallowing contracts with OID.
“I turned down the water this year, so I didn’t get hay crops,” farmer Chuck Mount told the board. “I did my part. … I ask you to fulfill the agreement.”
We don’t know for sure that we have insurance. I felt it was more prudent to approve the general manager and general counsel to take and deal with these claims, so people are made whole.
Herman Doornenbal, OID board
Mount and two others filed a total of five formal claims against OID, one for each idled parcel, asking for a combined $53,361. That led to Tuesday’s decision, although paying fallowing farmers could get the district in trouble with a judge.
“(Farmers) performed; OID needs to perform,” board member Gary Osmundson said. “Let’s do what we agreed to do.”
The rest of the board agreed in concept, but not on procedure.
Board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri favored a public agency’s normal process of rejecting claims and letting OID’s insurance company sort things out. They were outvoted by Osmundson and board members Steve Webb and Herman Doornenbal, who preferred that OID’s attorney and General Manager Steve Knell handle deals with farmers. Webb said that would be “more timely and less costly.”
I intend on making you whole, one way or another. When, I can’t tell you. I have to walk on eggshells; otherwise you’d have been taken care of already.
Steve Webb, OID chairman, to fallowing farmer
OID expects more farmers to come forward with similar requests, attorney Tim O’Laughlin, representing the district, said in a letter to Osha Meserve, a Sacramento lawyer for two OID customers who sued in April. They hoped to force the district to study how shipping water elsewhere might affect the local groundwater table.
The fallowing project would have paid farmers willing to idle land from proceeds of selling freed-up water to outside buyers. Of that money, farmers would receive 20 percent in cash and 75 percent would upgrade their water equipment, while the district would keep 5 percent.
But OID management hadn’t started the process in time for state and federal regulators to approve a straightforward water transfer. And a judge in May agreed with Meserve, derailing the fallowing program until OID follows state law requiring environmental studies. A trial to resolve that lawsuit’s questions remains scheduled for January.
5Claims filed so far against OID by unpaid farmers
$53,361Combined total of requested payouts
In a letter to O’Laughlin dated Monday, Meserve said OID and fallowing farmers “apparently decided to proceed with improvements at their own risk” despite the lawsuit. She has no authority to go against the judge’s May ruling, Meserve said, “even if it were possible to do so.”
After discussing Meserve’s letter behind closed doors, the board majority directed Knell and the OID attorney to proceed.
Disputes among board members created a spinoff lawsuit when the board majority sued to exclude Santos and Altieri from closed-door strategy discussions and votes on the fallowing lawsuit. A judge in July barred Santos and Altieri, but another last month reversed the ruling, saying they should not be handcuffed from performing duties of elected office.
Two weeks ago, however, the board majority refused to dismiss the lawsuit against Santos and Altieri. The board has not announced its next move; in a written report for Tuesday’s meeting, Knell wrote: “The case is moving forward.”
I got phone calls from constituents who are not in favor of a 3 percent increase. There are some very unhappy people.
Linda Santos, OID board
In other action, the board:
▪ Canceled an automatic 3 percent hike in 2017 water rates. Such bumps were envisioned when the board last raised prices two years ago.
“We made some nice water sales. I don’t think we need it,” Doornenbal said, referring to income from two deals this year with buyers from the west side of Stanislaus County and south of the Delta, bringing $15.75 million.
▪ Rejected a staff proposal to destroy cassette tape recordings of board meetings after 30 days.
Such recordings don’t “take up any space,” Santos said, and “help us verify who said what and who did or didn’t vote.” She argued to continue retaining them for a year, and the rest of the board agreed, some saying OID should look into acquiring a digital recorder.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390