Toward Water Protection

The County Takes a Step toward Protecting Water 012512

A Fringe Editorial on Water


In the 1920’s no one in Northern California needed to be told there was a war over water.  Today, the war over water is not so clear.


At last week’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting the board acknowledged the need for someone to monitor and track water projects and new water regulations, and their implications for the county.  This is a great first step towards becoming thoroughly informed on water issues in the county.


The discussion before the Board cited some pretty historical events in local water concerns, including the Water Master Fee, watershed restoration projects, ground and surface water monitoring in the Sierra Valley, scattered efforts at aquatic invasive species monitoring and prevention, and the end of suction dredging.  We’ve watched as farmers and landowners in counties north have struggled to maintain the life blood of agriculture, water.


The Board’s recognition of the need is a response to that. The supervisors acknowledge a responsibility to all the county’s residents and landowners, and to the future, and not only to people who are getting a feelgood by following the values of the moment.


The position could easily go wrong.  Water is politics, and not everyone wants to see strong county response to water projects.  “Watershed coordinators” typically operate on grants, and grants are given by organizations which have an interest in water use and development; the purpose of such grants is to create a consensus, generally a consensus of people who, one way or another, win their bread and butter in watershed issues.  There is a kind of “group think” which tends to devalue some local interests.  It is very unlikely anyone will offer a grant to Sierra County to protect its water resources from exploitation.  If the position is not conceptualized as working for the Board of Supervisors, instead of out-of-county interests, the position could actually hurt the county.


The “local watershed council” has a watershed coordinator but the position does not and cannot answer to the Board of Supervisors since it is beholden to the Department of Conservation for funding and works under a work plan that is potentially at odds with local land owners and residents, and makes it a priority to “accelerate and expand conservation in the region, to attain its Goals and to develop stronger relationships with regional partners such as the Northern Sierra Partnership, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Sierra Nevada Alliance, Sierra Business Council and National Forest Foundation”  (from the DOC project description website).  Further, the position is not strong on water law.


What’s called for is an attorney, one familiar with water rights and grant funding issues.  Such a person is qualified to answer some important, long neglected issues. 


Here is my list of questions:


The Sierra County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution requiring all water projects proponents in the county to assess potential impacts and inform the County before doing any work.  (A draft of the resolution, presented by Supervisor Nunes, is HERE; the approved resolution might be different).   Does the county have authority to require such information?  How could the County strengthen that to add penalties for doing work without proper notification?  Could the county take action under water law?


What are “county of origin” and “region of origin” water rights?


Materially, what rights does this give Sierra County and what do we need to do to protect those rights?


Regarding water testing in the Sierra Valley:

What “leverage” or authority does the county have to legally protect agricultural water and the rural lifestyle in the county?

What are the current requirements for surface and ground water?

What testing is being done, who is doing it, and where does the data go?

Regarding the plan to re-introduce endangered fish and amphibians to the county:

What is the likely impact on county residents and tourists?

What is the extent of the county’s ability to support or reject these changes to the county?


Recently, an agreement was entered into which can or might cause Sierra County residents in the Truckee River Watershed to apply to Nevada for a permit to drill a well.  What, exactly, is the legal structure of this requirement, and is Sierra County able to insist that its own permits process be followed instead?


Regarding other players:

Who are the other players and what is the likely impact?  For example, High Sierra Rural Alliance has imposed its will on county stream setbacks, and have protested home owner projects because of “water quality” in the Yuba; Sierra County Firesafe and Water Shed Council Inc. has set itself up to facilitate state water projects involved in the “IRWMP” scheme and is actually helping the Forest Service compete with local projects for grant money.  Sierra Valley Resource Conservation District is still helping the Forest Service get grants.  Water is money in California and players get very serious on the matter; who is likely to sue the county for attempting to assert control over local projects?

What accountability is there when projects fail or are poorly executed?


How can Sierra County use the Integrated Regional Water Management Program to maximize control over the projects under that program?  The program is now out of money, and it seems unlikely that the Clean, Safe and Reliable Water Supply Act of 2012 will pass; Brown has recommended the act, which was recycled from 2010, be put off again until 2014.  However, the act will pass once the taps in the population areas start to run dry. What are the likely impacts of the act on county water?  What representation should County Government have on IRWMP groups to take advantage of the regional planning aspect of the plan and ensure that the county, and its residents, are represented in decision making?


Who is charged with ensuring that residents and visitors have access to lakes which are publically owned, receive public money for study, and qualify as navigable waters?


How can Sierra County demand that the Department of Fish and Game assume proper responsibility for assessing and mitigating danger to local waters from aquatic invasive species, instead of dumping the issue on counties and whomever shows up for grant money?


How can Sierra County join with Plumas, Siskiyou, and other rural counties to counter the current political trend toward leaving counties out of water planning issues?  How can our county representatives in RCRC and CSAC best argue for local control over water in the mountain counties?

What can be done about the Forest Service and the sovereignty they have over water in FS watersheds?  Can “coordination” provide the county more input?



These questions probably lack the subtly of someone who really understands water law, but even these questions are generally unanswered in the county.


We don’t need another person making a living off our water woes, but we do need someone who can speak with knowledge on these issues.  Who knows how such a position could be funded; maybe the County can follow the example of some groups and support an attorney by suing everyone for everything.  Or, maybe the board could hang on to some Title III money for such a purpose.


Good luck, Supes!







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