By George Wheeldon
I’ve spent years studying and teaching geology and the history of the Mother Lode. Today, however, I’m switching to a different history, the history of agriculture in El Dorado County, and why our county agriculture may suffer a devastating setback, worse than the pear blight or prohibition.
In 1904 our county grew 2,100 acres of wine grapes. Prohibition, however, killed the wine industry. By 1966 only 11 acres of wine grapes were grown in our county. The early 1970s began a rebirth of county grape growing. Greg Boeger purchased Lombardo/Fossatti Winery in 1973. Our county has been adding grape acreage and wineries every year since, reaching nearly 100 wineries today.
County farmers began growing pears around 1900, with production growing to 52,000 tons in 1958. Then pear blight killed that industry, reducing county pear production to just 8,435 tons in 1965. The death of the pear industry started the next chapter in El Dorado County’s agricultural history, the birth of “Apple Hill.”
In 1964 Gene Bolster, Dick Bethell, Ed Delfino and Bob Tuck formed an apple growers association, naming it “Apple Hill” and marketed it aggressively. Today visitors come to Apple Hill from all over northern California to sample apples and all things made from apples and to have a fun family outing. Christmas trees and other farm operations add to the mix. Today Apple Hill farmers are a major economic force, generating $255 million in 2015 from all sources.
A new development now threatens to virtually wipe out Apple Hill farmers. This time, though, it’s not blight or prohibition. It’s a lawsuit. If successful the lawsuit will make irrigation water so expensive that only a very few well established farmers might survive. Local farmers will pay thousands more for their water, some paying more than $100,000 extra each year, while the average residential ratepayer will save only $36 annually. Over time that $36 savings will diminish as farmers go out of business and sell their land. Eventually developers will swoop in to buy the empty land for pennies on the dollar, replacing our beautiful vineyards, orchards and Christmas tree farms with housing developments. It’s hard to fathom why anyone would willingly destroy a profitable industry, a way of life and scenic open spaces which our farms and ranches provide — all to save residential ratepayers as little as $6 on their EID bill.
In a misguided effort Darwin Throne, of El Dorado Hills, is suing to force El Dorado Irrigation District to charge the same rates to all classes of water customer, residential, schools, parks, farmers and ranchers. EID Director, Greg Prada, has been arguing to increase farm water rates since before he joined the EID board. He even pestered Howard Jarvis Taxpayers to sue EID until they ordered him to stop asking.
On Aug. 28, 2017 Prada put on a presentation at an EID board meeting, which included some very doubtful legal reasoning, claiming that EID’s rates violate Prop. 218. A few weeks later Darwin Throne, a Prada supporter, filed a claim and then a lawsuit against EID for violating Prop. 218. Amazingly, the lawsuit used the very same legal arguments Greg Prada had just presented. Coincidence?
To date EID has spent 40,000 ratepayer dollars fighting the lawsuit and expects to spend another $200,000 to $300,000, with Prada refusing to vote to authorize even the $40,000. EID feels confident about its chances of winning in court, although it’s not guaranteed. Losing the lawsuit could cost EID ratepayers millions, paying EID’s legal costs as well as Throne’s. How ironic, that a board member who masquerades as a ratepayer’s advocate is costing EID’s ratepayers so much.
Throne’s lawsuit, supported by Director Prada, presents a clear and present danger to the county’s agricultural industry and way of life. Failure to fight the lawsuit would have the same effect as losing. EID directors hold the fate of Apple Hill in their hands, deciding whether or not to fight the lawsuit. It’s critical to elect EID board candidates who guarantee that they will fight the lawsuit to preserve local farms and ranches. Director Prada has made it clear that he will not fight the lawsuit and supports ruinous water rates for our local farmers.
If you live in EID Division 2, please vote for Pat Dwyer, Greg Prada’s opponent. Pat is extremely well qualified and promises to fight the lawsuit to save Apple Hill. If you live in EID Division 4, please re-elect Director Dale Coco. Director Coco has done a great job as an EID director and guarantees that he will continue his fight to save agriculture in El Dorado County.
EID’s chances of winning the lawsuit are pretty good, but winning requires at least three EID board members to fight it. Dwyer and Coco are two who will fight to save Apple Hill.
George Wheeldon is an emeritus professor of Geology and 12 year member of the El Dorado Irrigation District Board of Directors