Appellate court blasts Oakdale Irrigation District’s fallowing project

The Oakdale Irrigation District skirted state law by not predicting the environmental results of fallowing land and selling freed-up water to outside buyers in a 2016 proposal, appellate justices in Fresno ruled.

The Nov. 27 decision affirms one handed down last year by a Stanislaus County judge, who said OID should have conducted an environmental impact report before launching the project.

“We hope this is a wake-up call to OID,” said Osha Meserve, attorney for Oakdale-area growers Louis Brichetto and Robert Frobose and the Oakdale Groundwater Alliance.

In an email, OID General Manager Steve Knell called the fallowing program “a success” despite losing on two court levels. Owners of 59 fields covering 1,265 acres had agreed to fallow land before a judge ordered OID to stop the program. A board majority in September agreed to pay $964,000 to owners of 45 of those parcels, and the district is prepared to pay a total of $1.25 million if the others come forward.

Three justices with the Fifth Appellate District in Fresno found that OID, in 2016, had produced “an insufficient evaluation of the project’s potential environmental impacts on biological resources and air quality, depriving the public of a full understanding of the issues raised.”

The justices did not address a major claim in the lawsuit, that OID failed to analyze how shipping surface water elsewhere might affect groundwater here.

“OID needs policies so their programs don’t have a negative effect, but a positive effect on our environment,” Frobose said. “They owe that to the community.”

OID board chairman Tom Orvis, elected last year — after the fallowing controversy figured in two lawsuits as well as a failed attempt to recall another board member — said in an email, “The court has ruled. We have heard them and respect their decision. It is time to move on to the important issues we are currently facing that will affect the long-term future of our district.”

Knell said the lawsuit will change how OID sells water in the future. “Those changes will cost more money and time to get work done,” he said, “but that’s just something we’ll have to plan for.”

The district has sold other surplus water under alternate rules not requiring environmental studies, reaping more than $50 million in the past decade.