Plumas County steps in to fight for water-right holders

Dan McDonald

Staff Writer

June 15, 2011 – Plumas County ranchers and concerned water rights holders made an impassioned plea for help last week.

Facing fee increases of up to 540 percent for the state-run watermaster program, they took the issue to the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, which met as the governing board of the Flood Control and Water Conservation District on Tuesday, June 7, in Quincy.

Rancher Susie Pearce explained the increase in real dollars and cents.

“The reality is my watermaster fee goes from $1,500 to over $9,000,” Pierce said, fighting back tears. “This is ridiculous.”

Supervisor Lori Simpson quickly responded, “We’re very concerned. It’s outrageous. This is a shock to all of us.”

The enormous fee increase — which is scheduled to appear on water rights holders’ property taxes — is a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget, released May 16.

The budget calls for removing all state general fund support for the watermaster service areas in Northern California.

In Plumas County, that applies to Sierra Valley and the Indian Creek stream system.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger started the process in 2004 when he signed the Budget Act and Senate Bill 1107.

Those acts eliminated general fund support for the watermaster program.

The board responded to the ranchers’ pleas by drafting a letter to the governor and agreeing to discuss possible litigation.

Brian Morris, general manager of the Plumas County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, presented several possible options for the board’s consideration. He also authored the letter to be sent to Sacramento.

“What the letter asks for, specifically, is for a one-year reprieve (of the elimination of the general fund support),” Morris said. “The cost of this to the (state) general fund is only $1.23 million — which in the context of the state budget is a miniscule amount.”

Supervisor Robert Meacher said the board plans to attack the problem using every option available. That includes immediately taking the matter to court.

“We could go to our own court, to our own judge, and ask for some temporary relief,” Meacher said.

“I want to shy away from saying ‘restraining order,’ but that’s kind of what it is,” Meacher added. “Restraining the state from increasing the fees while we wait for an answer from the governor and while we talk to our legislators about legislative relief and forming a new district.”

Forming a new district to control water rights is the likely goal. Other Northern California counties have their own independent watermaster districts in place.

But Meacher noted the process involves legislation, which takes time. “It could take us a year or two,” he said.

Supervisor Terry Swofford emphasized the need for the county to create its own districts.

“I think the best option is for us to get the (watermaster program) under our control so people who use the water are more in charge of it,” Swofford said. “I think this probably should have been done years ago.

“Now, with the games the governor and the Legislature are playing, we end up in a fix here.”

It wasn’t too hard to see this day coming. But the fact that other counties have already addressed the problem provides a template for Plumas County.

“We are not trying to invent the wheel here. It’s been done in other jurisdictions,” Meacher said. “We’ve kind of dodged a bullet for a few years.

“In almost every county, it looks like it’s done a little differently. That hasn’t seemed to be a problem. We need to work with our (water) producers to make sure that we do it in a fashion that they approve of and that works best for them.”

Morris said that under the current water code, there are two options for the watermaster service areas: Either the Department of Water Resources provides a watermaster or the Superior Court that has jurisdiction can appoint a local agency to serve as the watermaster.

But Morris said going to the Legislature to establish a special watermaster district has its appeal.

“That’s what they did in Siskiyou County and also in Shasta and Tehama counties,” Morris said. “It’s really a matter of self-control, as opposed to ceding authority to some other body.”

Until there is a solution, some ranchers are opposed to paying the increased fee. Period.

“If we once pay that fee, it’s a passive agreement that it’s OK,” said Taylorsville resident Carol Viscarra, who is in the Indian Creek drainage district. “It’s highway robbery.”

Dan Salvatore said he is a property owner, not a rancher. He said he is outraged, just the same.

“We need to have a stay on this. It must cease and desist,” he said. “This is outrageous. It’s unbelievable. It’s killing our community. It has to be stopped, now.”


Water and politics

Meacher said that eliminating watermaster funding in the state general fund budget is a consequence of Democrats trying to punish Republicans.

“Unfortunately, it’s a rural issue. And the rurals are represented by Republicans. And Republicans are outnumbered,” he said.

“Kind of like our county fair’s budget and a lot of other things that are going on in the shell game in Sacramento.”

Morris added that the one watermaster district not affected by the state budget is on the Napa River, “which is the one in Northern California that is a Democratic district,” he said, drawing laughter from most everyone in the room.

“We heard about this from Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), that this kind of thing — targeting cuts to the Republican districts because of disagreement over the tax extensions — might be one more place where the administration is trying to apply some pressure.”

Meacher later landed his own jab at the state budget.

“I know exactly where we can get the $1.3 million … There’s a $30 million budget for the management of the mountain lion! So … (a smiling Meacher paused as he waited for everyone to stop laughing) … we reduce that budget by $1.3 million and we are there. That’s how absurd the budget is.”

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