New OID customers get sweetheart deals on annexation fees

A harvester picks up almonds in Trinitas Farming orchards in 2014. Trinitas has over 7,000 acres of almonds around Oakdale.
A harvester picks up almonds in Trinitas Farming orchards in 2014. Trinitas has over 7,000 acres of almonds around Oakdale. dnoda@modbee.com

Irrigation leaders on Tuesday unanimously approved contracts selling water to owners of about 1,000 newly annexed farm acres on the district’s fringes.

Oakdale Irrigation District board members said terms include allowing landowners to pay annexation fees over 20 years, at 3 percent interest – same as those offered when megagrower Trinitas Farming joined OID in 2013.

“I believe we need to follow through,” the board’s Herman Doornenbal said. “If a promise isn’t kept, our word is useless.”

Some OID farmers have objected to the Trinitas deal because the company received some water in recent drought years, while existing customers’ allocations were reduced. Board member Linda Santos sought Tuesday to close what she saw as a loophole giving similar preferential treatment to the new annexations.

“One (contract) word can be used to give an advantage to one landowner over another,” Santos said.

Ripon attorney Tom Terpstra, representing Oakdale’s Hoekstra dairy, suggested changes in contract wording. That appeased Santos, who said, “I’m all for keeping water here. I just want to make sure what we’re doing is fair to everyone.”

General Manager Steve Knell said some language was meant to prevent the board from selling water meant for the annexed land to higher bidders elsewhere. And Doornenbal said receiving 3 percent interest from landowners is better than 1 percent, the district’s average interest income from bank savings.

Jack Hoekstra said favorable terms will help keep his dairy in Oakdale.

The board’s Gary Osmundson abstained from voting on two Hoekstra contracts, to avoid a conflict of interest related to Osmundson’s business dealings.

Santos asked staff to develop a policy requiring that the board, when selling surplus water, give preference to farmers near OID’s borders rather than outsiders. The district has reaped $48 million in the past decade by shopping water to out-of-county buyers, although none will be sold this year.

In other action, the board approved a new policy requiring that OID balance its voting divisions after each U.S. Census. That’s already mandated by state and federal law, which previous boards ignored in 2000 and 2010, allowing some voting divisions to bloat much larger than others.

The imbalance was revealed two years ago in The Modesto Bee, leading to a blistering Stanislaus County civil grand jury report in March. The board in April finally resized its voting divisions, in the process dropping a gerrymander proposal that would have kept Osmundson on the board. He is expected soon to move to another home outside of his division, forcing him to give up his seat.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390