Conservation projects raise concern over water rights
At a meeting Tuesday, March 8, the Plumas County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to create a resolution to ensure water rights were properly addressed and protected in all future Coordinated Resource Management (CRM) group projects.
Flood Control and Water Conservation District Manager Brian Morris told the board Eastern Plumas Supervisor Terry Swofford brought the request for a resolution forward in reaction to a similar declaration the Sierra County Board of Supervisors passed.
Morris said the Sierra County resolution addressed “concerns over certain types of restoration projects potentially being conducted without enough coordination with the county or other agencies and also the effects they may have on water supply and water rights.”
The manager’s backup material explained the county was one of the founding members of the CRM, whose projects were funded by the California Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project to help combat alarming trends of diminishing amounts of runoff since 1950.
The document explained Pacific Gas & Electric Company discovered average annual runoff decreased by 400,000 acre-feet between 1960 and 2009 “despite generally constant levels of precipitation.”
The company also recorded a 59 percent decline in snowpack at the Stover Mountain ski area in the Lake Almanor basin since 1949.
The first trend seems to indicate less water is making it through the watershed and down to lower tributaries, while the second trend suggests less precipitation is being stored in snowpack.
Snowpack allows flows to be released more evenly throughout the year as the snow melts instead of flowing down all at once, which leads to floods and droughts.
Morris told the board CRM projects were intended to address both of those issues by restoring desert-like ravines created by erosion into revitalized marshes that capture water in the winter and early spring, releasing it later in the year from April to October.
Morris said this technique was supported by models created at the UC Davis Hydrologic Research Laboratory and on-the-ground studies of actual completed work, both of which demonstrated the CRM projects resulted in slightly less total water flowing through the watershed during the year but a much more significant increase in the amount of water flowing during the April – October time window.
In theory this means instead of having most of the water rushing down a ravine to sit behind dams and evaporate, the water is stored underground and released throughout the year, resulting in more water during the times when people can use it.
Morris told the board, “The objective has been to provide benefits for everyone who has an interest in the project.”
“That means the local water users have more water available to them and we also provide downstream benefits for flood control and providing that time shift of water to later in the year when people need it more.”
When things go wrong
Morris added that in some circumstances, such as in the case of the Perazzo Meadows project on Forest Service land in Sierra County, there can be a negative short-term impact to water flows, especially for people immediately below the project.
“There’s a certain amount of time it takes to re-water a meadow and get the groundwater table back up and you can actually observe a decreased stream flow for a period of time after the project is constructed.”
Morris explained in the case of Perazzo Meadows, a water diversion feeding into Sierra Valley from the Little Truckee River had to be cut off a month earlier than usual because of this type of issue.
“The Tahoe National Forest is looking at that project very closely. They’ve committed to a five-year study to look at the effects, which will hopefully be beneficial in the long term and actually provide increased water supply later in the season, but there are people who are nervous about whether or not that will pan out.”
The manager said part of that concern was rooted in the fact that “the five-year period is about the time the Sierra Valley Mutual Water Company, which is the recipient of the water, needs to take action against the federal government if they feel they’ve been harmed by the project.”
Plumas and Sierra
Morris said the Sierra County resolution was created in reaction to that incident and “we’ve had a number of people ask Plumas County to adopt a similar type of resolution.”
The Sierra resolution proclaims that county “supports water rights” and demands the board be consulted about projects affecting water rights within the county.
Morris said the difference in Plumas County’s situation was that, as a founding member of the CRM and the lead agency in projects within Plumas, our county board “would basically have veto authority over a project.”
“The county also serves as the lead agency to review the environmental impacts of the projects under the California Environmental Quality Act,” he added.
This means that signing an identical resolution to the one Sierra County passed would essentially consist of the Plumas County supervisors demanding that they consult with themselves on future projects.
Morris said Plumas County’s position in the CRM process would allow it to actually “provide assurances about protecting water supply both against the short-term impacts of constructing a project and also to make sure that there aren’t any long-term adverse impacts.”
He concluded that the county had the ability to actually make changes to the CRM process for projects in Plumas and address water right holders’ fears instead of just signing a threatening resolution like Sierra County did.
Ranchers and CRM
“Before these projects were committed, did anybody go out and talk to the ranchers?” Swofford asked.
“We really try to bring in every stakeholder that may be interested,” CRM Project Manager Leslie Mink answered.
She also clarified that the CRM did have backup plans going into the Perazzo Meadows project but they didn’t work as well as planned.
“We had met for at least a year with the Last Chance Creek irrigation district before we put that project in and all of the downstream users were supportive of the project.
“We had two different solutions for short-term water users downstream during construction. One was to put water in the irrigation ditch.”
“We thought that might not work so another solution we had was to pump water around the project area so that people downstream could get water during construction.
“That wasn’t really working very well — we offered to send water trucks down for stock water.
“That wasn’t really going to meet the need so that was when we were lucky to have a person who didn’t use all their water.
“As these projects evolve and as the process evolves we can improve the way that we communicate with people and we’re really happy to find out how we can do that,” she concluded.
Sierra Valley rancher Rick Roberti explained that he really did believe the CRM staff “tried their hardest” to solve the Perazzo problem but got in over their head.
He added that the problem hadn’t happened again “once the water filled up, but that doesn’t mean come a dry year it’s going to.”
Roberti commented that many ranchers conducted similar work to what the CRM did. “I really want to say that we’re not against these projects we just want to make sure we don’t get hurt downstream later,” he said.
“I knew about the project but nobody ever contacted me,” Sierra Valley property owner Jeff Carmichael commented.
“I’m a low-priority downstream user but I do still have some water rights there, so I think that private property water rights are being, shall we say, not considered to the extent that they should be in the planning for these projects, and I’d like a resolution, like Terry (Swofford) is suggesting, that would ensure that they are in the future.”
CRM Program Manager Jim Wilcox responded that water rights were addressed in a less formal and transparent fashion in the past but that beginning in 2011 “a water rights, water effects analysis” became part of every project.
Addressing Carmichael’s complaint he admitted, “We try to reach out to everybody we can and we don’t get everybody.
“Sometimes we don’t know everybody. We don’t get a mailing list or a water rights user five, six, eight miles downstream in Sierra Valley, and we should try to do that more.”
He also recognized that “for the ag community, attending meetings in the summer is darn near impossible.”
Feather River Watershed Group Chairman Russell Reid explained he represented more than 100 irrigators in American, Sierra and Indian valleys who were “very much in support” of a resolution that would “try to establish water rights as a concern for projects and that there would be a process that those water rights would be looked at, protected and made sure that they are within the legal balance of what everybody’s doing.”
With that said he added, “I would like to recognize that quite a few of our members have had very good success with these water restoration projects.
“They’re all different and we recognize that, and we don’t want to stop those projects, we need a better watershed.
“I think it can be done and I don’t think it’s necessarily that we have to go after each and every one project that has been good or bad.”
Indian Valley Supervisor Robert Meacher told Reid he was in favor of a resolution but thought the Plumas board could do better than Sierra County’s resolution, which he characterized as “soft” and more of a show of support than anything else.
“I think we could easily adopt the exact same language as Sierra County and be done with it, but I don’t think it’s doing your members and the ag community and producers the service that we could provide in a more comprehensive resolution.”
Graeagle Supervisor Jon Kennedy agreed with Morris and Meacher that the board should draft its own resolution, as Sierra County’s was “kinda weak.”
With a majority of board members voicing their support for some form of resolution, Swofford moved for one to be created and voted on at a later meeting. Meacher seconded the motion.