Flying under the political radar during election seasons are 19 irrigation districts partially or entirely in Tulare County. Unbeknownst to most voters, sitting on an irrigation district board is an elected office. But it is a position that rarely makes it onto the ballot, sometimes by design, and sometimes for lack of qualified or willing candidates.
“As I was walking the precincts people were asking, ‘What’s Alta Irrigation District? They don’t even know it exists,’” said Dominic Fino, challenger for the District 4 seat on the Alta Irrigation Board.
Considering the water wars of the past, to which Alta Irrigation District (Alta) is no stranger, this election is civil.
“Marco and I played together in each other’s back yards. Our moms were best friends,” said Fino.
Fino’s childhood friend and opponent is Marco Rinaldi, the appointed incumbent for District 4.
In 1882 the ’76 Canal and Water Company Ditch had the highest diversion point on the Kings River. That company evolved into the Alta Irrigation District, Alta meaning highest, when the headquarters moved from Visalia to Traver.
In 1887 California Assembly member CC Wright authored the Wright Act. The act allowed farming regions to form local irrigation districts and gave them authority for water development, distribution, and the election of directors. Privately owned irrigation ditches and canals in the late 1800’s were run for profit with few improvements made to their conveyance system and prone to corruption or lawlessness.
In Water for a Thirsty Land, “As Wright explained it, the Legislature had ‘created a special government for the one purpose of developing and administering the irrigation water for the benefit of the people.’”
Alta was the second public irrigation district formed in California after the establishment of the Wright Act and in 1888 it permanently moved the district office to Dinuba.
The district services Dinuba, Reedley, Traver and Cutler/Orosi, and according to its website, “The district boundaries encompass approximately 129,000 acres, with 111,000 cropped acres. The district operates 250 miles of open canals and 75 miles of pipelines.”
The primary function of the district is to deliver surface water to farmers and ground water recharge.
Alta is part of the Kings River East GSA. Since the passage of the Ground Water Management Act in 2014 another important job for directors has been to craft a ground water management plan to protect the underground aquifer.
Each GSA’s plan is to be implemented this year, and if it is not done right, the state could take over management of the region’s water.
Fino said that the District 4 seat has not been up for election in three generations, and that’s just as far as he knows.
According to Fino, a certain Mr. Terry had held the seat for 20 or 30 years since the 1950’s “and literally died on the job during a board meeting.” According to Fino, the board then asked his son if he would like to finish the term, and his son said in typical dead pan farmer humor, “you killed my dad, you’re not going to kill me.”
So the Alta Board ended up appointing Norman Waldner in 1974, a Dinuba native and farmer. Unlike his predecessor, he survived his many terms and retired after 45 years of service. Fino said that Waldner mentioned last October that he may not want to run again and encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring.
Waldner ended up retiring last November and the board interviewed both Rinaldi and Fino for the seat. They ultimately chose Rinaldi to finish out Waldner’s term.
What concerns Fino the most is the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA.)
“If we don’t manage ourselves the state will come in and manage our water for us.”
He said a year ago he would have been “get along to go along” until the reality of SGMA sunk in after talking with Waldner.
“We really need to work as a district. It’s not just the farmers. We all have a vested interest to manage our water ourselves and make sure we are the best stewards of our local resource.”
Rinaldi echoed Fino’s sentiment, “It’s one thing to have availability (of water) but you have to prove that you are using it to its highest and best use. If not the state comes in and says ‘maybe someone else could use your water.’”
Where the two candidates diverge is communication. Fino cited several instances where the district has not done a good job of communicating with the community. He said the Kings River East SGMA plan, in which Alta participated in the writing, is not on the website.
In fact he said the website has not been updated in a year. “Just a quarterly update would go a long way to educate people and it is Alta’s best interest to have an educated public. “
Fino quoted a UC Davis study saying that a million acres of farmland might have to be fallowed to solve the severe overdraft of the Valley’s underground aquifer. “How do we live under SGMA and keep our farms and urban areas prosperous? We all live in the same water basin whether you are filling your pool or planting crops.”
Another instance of poor communication happened last July during a sewage spill in Orange Cove. A possible spill into an Alta canal meant the water had to be diverted. “Dinuba West got their water but for Dinuba East, there was a two week delay – in July – which is a crucial month for obvious reasons.”
“No one told us about it.”
Fino said it turned out the district was waiting for test results to come back before it delivered the water. But he said the ditch tenders have all of the recipients’ phone numbers. They also could have written two or three lines on their website, or sent a press release to Mid Valley News (formerly the Dinuba Sentinel.)
“When I’m late with paying my assessments the district put my name in the paper to shame me. They could have used the same system to let the water users know what was happening.”
“I have an expectation to be informed of these things. It goes back to an issue of communication.”
Besides farming a100 acres in Dinuba, Fino has been selling crop insurance for 20 years, a niche type of insurance that can be difficult to understand. Selling the insurance has entailed a lot of public speaking and educating individuals of the insurance’s complexities.
“Communication – that would be my best asset I would bring to the board.”
As for Rinaldi, he feels like experience is key.
Besides coming from a long line of farmers he said, “I have the experience of being on water boards. I have been on the Hills Valley Irrigation District since November 2017 and the Alta board since January of this year.” Rinaldi has also been on the advisory committee of the Kings River East GSA.
“My main objective is to work with the board to ensure that we deliver as much water as possible to our district users,” said Rinaldi.