OID wins first round in lawsuit over water sales, fallowed land

Oakdale Irrigation District offices on F Street in Oakdale
Oakdale Irrigation District offices on F Street in Oakdale jjardine@modbee.com

A judge declined Wednesday to halt the Oakdale Irrigation District’s evolving plan to idle some farmland and sell water not needed for that land.

The district has not revealed – to the public or its own board of directors – how its fallowing program has changed, other than to say that previous prospective buyers no longer are involved.

Attorney Osha Meserve accused OID of “mixing and matching and a little fancy dancing,” and urged Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Timothy Salter to have the district clarify its intent.

“What are they doing with the water that’s saved?” Meserve asked. “They need to answer the question, otherwise these excuses don’t make sense.”

OID’s attorney, Tim O’Laughlin, acknowledged “misconception about what’s happening with the water” and said he would help clear it up. He and two attorneys representing prospective buyers south of the Delta said their deal was off, but none clarified how the fallowing program will continue under undisclosed new terms, including whether other buyers have or will be courted and how much money the water might fetch.

Without explaining, Salter ruled in OID’s favor.

Louis Brichetto and Robert Frobose, who are growers and OID customers, had sued to stop the water transfer, contending that OID should conduct an in-depth study of environmental consequences of shipping water elsewhere. They’ll get another chance to make a case before Judge William Mayhew on May 18, in a motion with less urgency.

In addition to environmental concerns, plaintiffs have accused OID board member Gary Osmundson, also a farmer, of “self-dealing,” or casting a vote favoring the fallowing program to enrich himself. The 105 acres he intends to fallow – about one-sixth of the 605 acres whose owners had signed up for the program, as of last week – could put $119,000 in his pocket, under terms approved by the board majority on March 15. Meserve said his vote violated state law preventing conflicts of interest by public officials.

Brichetto and Frobose filed a criminal complaint over Osmundson’s vote with Oakdale police and were told that the matter has been referred to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, a state agency enforcing such laws, Frobose said.

Osmundson, who attended the hearing Wednesday, previously said he received legal advice clearing him to vote because all OID customers were invited to apply for the fallowing program.

Calling it the On-Farm Conservation Program, OID initially intended to ship 9,000 to 10,000 acre-feet of water south for $400 an acre-foot, bringing in about $4 million. Participating farmers would receive 20 percent of proceeds in cash and spend 75 percent on efficiency upgrades, and the district would keep 5 percent. OID court papers indicate the formula remains intact, but O’Laughlin said the district expects the program to shrink to about 3,000 acre-feet of freed-up water.

The On-Farm program is separate from another water transfer that is now swelling the Stanislaus River. That “pulse flow” water, belonging to OID and its Tri-Dam partner, the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, is helping propel young salmon toward the ocean, and will be captured near the Delta and routed south to buyers paying the two districts $9.75 million each.

OID and SSJID sales and environmental documents state that water sold in OID’s On-Farm fallowing program would join water released in the current pulse flow. But O’Laughlin and the attorneys representing buyers all told the judge the opposite, without clarifying new fallowing terms.

“The transfer is not happening,” said Rebecca Akroyd, representing the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority.

OID board member Gail Altieri attended the hearing and said afterward that the board has not been told of a change in the fallowing program. She and board member Linda Santos had opposed that deal when it was approved in March; both were elected in November after campaigning to bring transparency to the board.

The OID board is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. May 17 – a day before the next lawsuit hearing – in the board chamber at 1205 E. F St., Oakdale.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390