SC Leads Water War

Sierra County Leads the Water War 020911
News, analysis, opinion

The Sierra has long been a battleground over water, and, at least in legend, shots have been fired over water.  No one is shooting anymore, the six-gun has been replaced with something more insidious and destructive: the lawsuit.
The Sierra County Board of Supervisors, in the February 1, 2011 meeting addressed an item calling for a:

resolution acknowledging and supporting water rights and assuring proper analysis and understanding of impacts to existing water rights, including agricultural rights, from projects planned or proposed for watershed or meadow restoration.

The resolution, which exists in draft only can be found HERE.  It will likely be approved at the next Board meeting.

At first glance, it’s a modest statement, crafted, according to rumor, by Tim Beals and Bill Nunes, and it shows the restraint and thoughtfulness of County Council Jim Curtis, but it is in reality as strong a stand as a county can rationally make in the tense and dangerous world of water in California.  It is also the extent of its power.

Context the statement in a history of decrees, operating agreements, and lawsuits.  Sierra County has waters that pass into the Lahontan basin and into the Central Valley, two very politically charged regions for water, where fish and ducks compete with Indian tribes and agriculture against the urban water demands of the Sacramento Delta and the Truckee Meadows and Pyramid Lake.

Further, context the statement against the modern reality: there is not enough water, and it is unlikely there ever will be.  Some of the decrees and agreements go back to a time when there was much more water, and the water stayed in the hills longer.  By most estimates, what we’ve come to accept as a “normal year” is at least 30% less than was experienced in the past.

Not only less, but for less time.  If the current trend of rainy winters in the Sierra continues, our winters will be snow-shy but water heavy, and springs will be lively rushing flows which slow to a trickle months earlier than in the past.

While not a declaration of war, the draft resolution is a statement that the county will insist on being an informed participant in any project which might impact the surface waters and water rights in the county.  

Consider Siskiyou County, where lawsuits and threat of law suits and on the ground actions by state agencies have pitted farmers against imaginary salmon.  

Consider as well the recent expectations of the Department of Water Resources to monitor water resources within the county.  The county has become a crazy quilt of  water agencies, mostly non-profit, coordinated efforts like the Upper Feather River
Integrated Regional Water Management Program

The “watershed events” galvanizing the Board to take strong action are two: first, the Perazzo Meadows watershed restoration project, and second, a grant for the Pauly Creek Meadows assessment.  

In the first instance, the U. S. Forest Service, in cooperation several other non-profit and non governmental water agencies, engaged in plug-and-pond activities which will have an unknown impact on the delivery of water to the Sierra Valley Water Company.  The Company serves ag users who have property with shares of the water, and is served by a ditch which takes water from the Truckee River watershed and diverts it to the Feather River watershed.  Had the details of the diversion not been worked out in the early 1900s, it is very unlikely such a diversion would be allowed today.  It is governed by the Truckee River Operating Agreement.

When the FS started plugging the “degraded streambed” of the Little Truckee they changed the rate at which the water descended from the Meadows, impacting the owners of the Sierra Valley Water Company.

Worst: they had done so without even notifying users, or evidently considering, how it might impact the water rights they own.  

This apparent obliviousness of water rights shocked many; there might still be legal quarrels over the practice.
Subsequent to this event the Board learned that the Forest Service, along with American Rivers and others, are planning a review of Pauly Creek Meadows.  Again, the Board had not been informed.

During the discussion at the February 1 meeting, the Board’s concern received clear attention.  

The Board acknowledged there might be sound reasons for “restoring” watersheds.  To be clear, not everyone is in agreement on that.
There are those who point out that the idea of “restoring meadows” is not all that is going on.  Completely natural meadows are often “degraded”.  

What is sought here is water storage, and the concern isn’t for ag users, who need the water in the spring, but for downstream users who need it later in the year.  
That amounts to theft of the upstream ag user’s water.

The Board, in discussion, acknowledged the sometimes divergent needs of users, and determined that, at the very least, the impact on ag users be given the appropriate consideration, as Supervisors Goicoechea noted, “because it’s the law.”  

Further, the Board noted that “plug and pond” isn’t the only technology available, even though it’s often the only one considered.  

Paul Roen, who represents some owners of SVWC water rights addressed the Board.  He noted that in today’s water environment, if the company doesn’t vigorously defend its rights, they could lose them to down stream users.  He sought assurance that the Board understood the importance of water to county ag users.

Carol Dobbas, landowner and representative and member of local water and cattle groups stated the problem: “we’d like to see ag invited to the table when these projects are being discussed.”

No one wanted to frame the discussion as ranching versus environment, and Board Chair Lee Adams made an observation: “In Sierra County we actually live quite well with the environment.”  He noted we don’t have the terrible problems of pollution and misuse other counties have.

Adams also noted that many of the people who provide funding for these “restorations” are in urban areas, and understand ag water rights poorly, if at all.  

Dave Goicoechea noted that these aren’t “imaginary” water rights, they’re real, and legal.  He noted that the water rights are by court decree, and can’t be easily changed, nor should they be.

The Board resolved to monitor projects to safeguard water rights in the county.

That following Thursday over 175 people gathered in Quincy to discuss watershed and meadow restoration projects.  There were representatives of nearly a dozen groups or individuals involved with or concerned with meadow restoration.  Sierra County figured prominently at that discussion, and at one point Supervisor Bill Nunes took the podium to read the resolution; it was a stunning moment.

At that confab, which was attended by a strong contingent of Sierra County people, it was admitted that Perazzo Meadows planning had not included the county to the degree it needed to, and did not notify or properly consider Sierra Valley Water Company users.

Water issues are tricky.  The last thing anyone wants is all out war: legal battles which will outlive the players.  Still, in Sierra County, water rights are still valued.
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