Ap­pel­late court blasts Oak­dale Ir­ri­gation Dis­trict fal­low­ing project

The Modesto Bee - - Local - BY GARTH STA­P­LEY gsta­p­[email protected]­bee.com

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.

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