Oakdale

OID board blesses controversial payments to fallowing farmers

Oakdale Irrigation District board members Gail Altieri, Herman Doornenbal, Tom Orvis, Linda Santos and Brad DeBoer in the OID board room in Oakdale on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.
Oakdale Irrigation District board members Gail Altieri, Herman Doornenbal, Tom Orvis, Linda Santos and Brad DeBoer in the OID board room in Oakdale on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018. gstapley@modbee.com

On a split vote, irrigation leaders on Tuesday ratified nearly $1 million in payments to farmers who volunteered to fallow land two years ago, even though the program fell apart in the face of a lawsuit.

Before the On-Farm Conservation program failed, the Oakdale Irrigation District entered into 59 contracts with growers willing to idle some land in return for money from outside buyers of freed-up water. Many did expensive work, and board members long ago authorized General Manager Steve Knell and attorney Fred Silva to negotiate settlements.

The board on Tuesday gave its blessing to 21 of those contracts worth a combined $963,840, over objections from board members Linda Santos and Gail Altieri.

Santos said staff provided her no documentation indicating that reimbursements were valid. Some constituents told her that unnamed board members had profited indirectly by doing contract work for farmers being reimbursed, and others said Silva’s office might have conflicts because the legal firm has represented farmers getting payoffs, she said.

“There is so much controversy over this, I can’t see how we can move forward,” Santos said. She favored postponing a vote until “muddied water” becomes clearer.

Silva said his firm has no conflict of interest.

Board member Brad DeBoer noted that checks recently were sent, so revisiting the matter would have no practical purpose.

“These farmers were due the money,” DeBoer said. “It’s already a done deal.”

The board’s Herman Doornenbal and Tom Orvis agreed, overruling Santos and Altieri. Orvis, the board chairman, asked Silva to follow up with Santos’ questions, however, and Silva agreed.

The fallowing program figured in a failed recall attempt on Santos and in two lawsuits, both of which are ongoing in appellate court. In one, a Stanislaus judge ruled that OID tried to skirt state law by neglecting to study how groundwater levels might be affected if farmers fallow land and sell freed-up water elsewhere.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

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