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If help isn’t found in the next few weeks, water rights holders in the northeastern region of California may be paying between 2.6 to 5.4 times more than usual for the state-run watermaster program.
This could have a profound effect on ranchers, for example, who use surface water for their hay and cattle production.
Some larger ranchers may have to come up with tens of thousands of dollars more than they expected to pay on their property tax bills come December.
But this news should not surprise them too much, for the increases have been coming down the pipe since 2004, when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Budget Act and Senate Bill 1107.
With these two acts, he eliminated general fund support for the watermaster program, the cost of which was supposed to be split equally between the state and water rights holders.
Before that, the state was willing to pay an equal share because both the state and water rights holders received benefits from the watermaster service.
According to state documents the cost was not really split equally, though.
Instead of covering half the cost, some farmers in 2002 were paying only 25 percent or less, because the state had not raised their rates since the 1990s, according to Bill Mendenhall, chief of the northern region water management branch.
Back in 2002 some fees didn’t double because water rights holders fought the increase.
“So those people who did get doubled aren’t being hit so hard this time,” Mendenhall said. In other words, some water rights users have subsidized the others.
Lassen and Modoc counties petitioned the court after that, and ended up taking over their own watermaster programs, he added.
Lassen water rights holders will not be affected by this change in the state budget, since they have had their own program in place since 2006.
Shasta and Siskiyou counties water rights holders made their own watermaster districts back then as well, he said, in response to the increased charges.
Legislation was passed at that time to allow them and others to create their own watermaster districts, such as the one in Honey Lake, a conservation district run by the agricultural department.
To change the status quo, area water rights holders can petition their county superior courts, which are the holders of the water decrees, some of which date back to the 1920s.
For Lassen County, the process took more than two years, and more than one year for Modoc.
The state created the watermaster program in 1924, due to the number of disputes over water rights, some of which were violent and resulted in injuries and deaths.
The state tasked the counties with allotting water rights in a democratic and scientific way, and the decrees were developed.
“But these decrees need to be policed to make sure one user isn’t taking more than allotted in the decree,” Mendenhall said, and this is where the watermaster program comes in.
The state provides those services in many areas, but not all, Mendenhall said.
Fee hike moves closer
With the budget in turmoil again, like in 2004, the state is once again planning to withdraw the supplement usually provided in the state budget through the general fund.
The budget is going through committee and has been approved at two levels already, Mendenhall said, at the general finance committee hearing and the agricultural committee hearing.
Then it goes through final process before being signed by the governor.
The Farm Bureau or Cattlemen’s Association still may battle for some funding, but Mendenhall must assume it will go through the way it is for the fiscal year starting July 1.
The water department’s planned budget must be posted by June 15, which it has been.
The next move is to send it to heads of the county boards of supervisors, and to the county tax collectors by Aug. 15 so they can create the tax bills.
For one Genesee rancher on the Indian Creek watershed, the rate will jump from $1,100 per year to more than $6,000. And theirs is a small family-run ranch.
What can holders do?
While it seems like there is time for changes to be made between June and August, Mendenhall did not think so.
“The bills will go out, whether or not users take action to hire their own watermasters,” he said.
The process might go faster now that others in Lassen and Modoc counties have broken ground, but it would surprise him if Plumas could get it done by August.
He advises watermaster area water rights holders, like members of the Upper Feather River Watershed Group, to get going and set a trigger date for the changeover from the state-run program.
These groups may be able to make a deal with the state and use a portion of the next year’s worth of paid watermaster fees as a start-up fund for their own watermaster service.
Some have questioned the high cost of the program, and Mendenhall tried to explain.
For a state employee the cost is around $100 per hour.
“There is a lot of overhead involved in that,” he said.
The fee must include money to pay for department chiefs, lawyers, cars, gauging stations, structures, extensive paperwork and other costs, not just that one person’s hourly wage.
“We try to keep the costs down,” Mendenhall said.
No matter what, water rights holders must have a legally defensible position.
Last year one lawsuit over water rights in Shasta ended up costing millions in the end.
Lassen was also involved in a lawsuit that ended up costing the county about $200,000, he added.
Plumas County supervisors met to discuss this water-related situation Tuesday, June 7, after press time.
District 2 Supervisor Robert Meacher thinks they may be able to find some short-term relief.
They were alerted by Brian Morris, general manager of the Plumas County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, and by calls from their concerned constituents.
An update about their discussion will appear in later issues of Feather Publishing’s hometown weekly newspapers.
For more information about the watermaster program or specific watermaster areas, go to water.ca.gov/watermaster, or call Bill Mendenhall, chief of the northern region water management branch, at 529-7380.
Documents referenced in this article include the Summary of Operations for Watermaster Service in Northern California, 1998 season.
Due to budget constraints, this was the last such report made.
It and other annual reports dating back to the 1920s are available online at water.ca.gov/watermaster, where visitors can click on Watermaster Service Reports in the dark gray left-side menu.
To peruse the related part of the California Water Code, go to leginfo.ca.gov and click on California Law. Then click in the box for California Water Code near the bottom of the right-hand column and then on the search button. Division Two is not far from the top, then see Part Four.
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