Water rights holders continue weighing options
Indian Creek water rights holders bombarded state water officials with questions when they came to Taylorsville Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Many knew it was too late to prevent hundreds and thousands of dollars in charges on their tax bills come December, so the verification of that by the state and the county came as no surprise.
What did create some flack was the way state officials answered their questions.
When asked how the state could be or planned to be more economical in their watermaster operational spending and overhead, the response was for users to figure out a better way to service themselves if they could.
“Don’t try to change our function,” said Water Resources Chief Curtis Anderson, who also attended the Plumas County Board of Supervisors meeting earlier that day.
“Get more money into the system,” suggested the state attorney, Andrew Pollak.
Officials insisted they had worked to minimize expenses and overhead before submitting estimates for the Plumas County Tax Assessor to bill out.
This is the first year there has been no augmentation by the state, Anderson said, and if there is less expended, a correction will be made to balance it the following year.
Some of the ways expenses will be reduced is in the actual watermaster service.
The watermaster will no longer repair or install diversions, something that was done in the past, using some of the state augmentation money.
The state also consolidated two offices, closing one and reducing some of the overhead.
Should work done outside the service area be billed to the program?
Northern Region Water Management Branch Chief Bill Mendenhall, in a telephone interview after the meeting, said that was a judgment call.
Local watermaster Chris Reilly recently went to Crescent Mills at the request of water rights holders using the mineshaft.
Those rights holders include the Indian Valley Community Services District, owner of the domestic water treatment and distribution plant.
Although they are water rights holders, they are not in the watermaster service area, and will not be charged for his time.
Instead, he will be paid with the watermaster service fees collected on the property tax bills of others.
Reilly also spends payroll time attending meetings of the Feather River Coordinated Resources Management group, where he learns about projects in the upper watershed that might affect the rights holders who will now be paying for his services in full, since the governor stopped all state support of the program.
Should Reilly continue to attend such meetings in order look out for the rights of water users in his service area? Mendenhall posed that question in return.
If water rights holders are able to change to another watermaster service provider, will they have that one attend those meetings or study the proposed projects while on the clock?
Will they authorize their watermaster to go help someone else with water rights questions?
Movement away from state control of the watermaster program is currently being investigated by the rights holders, the county and the office of Keith Mahan, Plumas County agricultural commissioner.
People have had since 2004 to figure out an alternative, yet the state kept funding the program temporarily — until now.
Anderson explained this to supervisors before that meeting in Taylorsville, and he told them how letters were sent out to the water users after the governor’s 2004 decision to stop funding support of the watermaster service program.
“There was a large outcry from the water users,” he said. “The Farm Bureau, legislators, various people got involved.”
That is why the temporary funding was restored, to give them time to find other alternatives.
“There are other areas that have decided to have other entities provide watermaster service,” Anderson said. “And that’s allowed by the California water code.”
If there are other ways to provide a watermaster service, and people want to move forward, Anderson’s staff members will be able to help do that, he added.
Brian Morris, general manager of the Plumas County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, explained one such alternative.
He has been working with water rights holders and supervisors of both Plumas and Sierra counties, and formally proposed they form a joint powers agreement.
“So why would we wish to step into a position of once again inserting another layer of government into the picture?” Supervisor Sherrie Thrall wondered. “Why couldn’t the water users form their own district without the county involvement?”
Morris said they could, and that would probably be a better solution, but the time element was a problem — it would take at least two years.
“We’ve tried to do everything we can within a joint powers agreement to make it financially self-supporting and indemnify the counties,” Morris added.
Besides forming their own district, water users could also use an existing public agency as their watermaster, Morris explained.
Later in Taylorsville, water users liked both options, a joint powers agreement and using a public entity, which they chose as the agricultural commissioner, since much of the equipment needed is already available.
The startup and overhead costs, they figured, would be minimal.
Morris hopes to have something in place before the county must turn over the watermaster fees to the state Jan. 1.
Anderson explained that in Lassen, when they took over their own watermaster program, the money that was owed to his department was taken out of those fees, and the rest was retained to help with the startup costs.
In Siskiyou, the county loaned the new water district $25,000 for startup.
“If you can find a way to do it cheaper, I would have done that yesterday,” Anderson told the crowd in Taylorsville.
Can ranchers just do their own watermastering? This question was posed on District 2 Supervisor Robert Meacher’s porch in Genesee by a couple of ranchers, and in the board meeting room by Harry Rogers, of the Key Brand Ranch.
“That would have to be petitioned to the judge,” Anderson said.
They would need to explain why the program is not needed anymore.
“It was created for a reason, and you would have to say why that is no longer the case,” he said — and later on the phone said no one really knew any longer what those original reasons were.
Supervisors agreed to the joint powers concept in a 3-2 vote.
Meanwhile, Andrea Oilar from the agricultural commissioner’s office is helping study the issue to see if they will be able to help, as agreed to without opposition by the ayes of gathered ranchers.
Editor’s Note: Staff Writer Dan McDonald contributed information from the Plumas County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, Sept. 20.