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Ranchers fit to be tied over watermaster fees

Alicia Knadler
Indian Valley Editor
9/14/2011

The mounting frustration level of area ranchers is almost tangible, like smoke from a fire.

They and other water rights holders are in a fix with the increased state watermaster fees, which for most will rise by more than 400 percent.

The fees will be on the property tax bills this December.

To Taylorsville rancher Susie Pearce, that means she needs to find an extra $10,000 or so, from where she doesn’t know.

“How am I going to make it pay?” one rancher asked of his small ranch operation.

“Do hooter farms instead of cattle,” suggested another.

One couple at the meeting didn’t even know they had water rights until the watermaster fee suddenly appeared on their property tax bill in 2009.

They have a mini hobby ranch with very few animals.

“How can we relinquish that right?” the husband asked at one point.

Another resident wondered the same thing Tuesday, Aug. 30, when several ranchers and other water rights holders attended an informational meeting in Taylorsville.

“Why are we paying $102 an hour for a watermaster,” Mia Van Fleet asked. "Many of us can’t even afford health insurance or retirement savings, but we’re supporting state employees who can.”

Members of the group have taken on leadership roles, and are trying to gather information and share it.

One rancher will be in contact with a lawyer who will listen to their plight and share some advice.

Those present agreed to split the cost of a consultation.

The situation is being evaluated at the county level too, with one idea being to put all the water rights holders in the county under one watermaster hired by them, not the state.

Members of the group expressed even more frustration when told if the county took it over, the job to monitor water would probably be delegated to the Feather River Coordinated Resources Management group.

Several ranchers mentioned their displeasure with that scenario due to a certain level of mistrust that has developed over the past few years.

“Ranchers are doing the same job as them,” one man said. “But the opposite of getting paid, we are being priced out of our ranches.”

Several ranchers wanted to separate their tax bill somehow, pay only the property tax and not the fee.

That won’t work, according to Plumas County Tax Collector Julie White.

The payment will be returned if it is not complete.

Once the watermaster fee, or special assessment, is added to the tax bill, it becomes part of that bill and cannot be paid separately, she said.

She also said that if a property is in default for unpaid tax bills for five years, it would be subject to sale at auction, unless the owners arrange payment plans with the county.

Plumas County Auditor Shawn Montgomery did not know about anyone new being charged all of the sudden.

“The amounts have changed, not who is being charged,” she said.

It’s the state water board that tells her who to charge and how much.

Most of the 130 watermaster fees in the county will be increased between 400 and 462 percent, while 28 of them will rise about 150 to 160 percent.

One property owner will receive a fee of $19,038, which reflects an increase of more than $15,000 over what was charged for 2010-11.

Several bills will go from the hundreds to multiple thousands.

Government responses

Like the hobby farmers, there may be other residents surprised by a watermaster fee that has never been on their tax bill before.

According to Bill Mendenhall, water management branch chief, there have been many updates made during the past six years.

Properties have been split, for example, which includes water rights, though for some reason those remained unchanged until caught by the newest watermaster, who has spent some time to make sure all the records are in order.

Property owners who wish to relinquish those rights should be cautious, Mendenhall said.

The right may add value to the property, and once relinquished will be basically impossible to restore.

“You’d be giving it up forever,” he said.

He said the property owner, or organized group of owners, would have to go before the superior court judge to make an amendment to the water decree, probably with the help of an attorney.

“It was the people who weren’t getting along who asked for the watermaster program,” he said. “If they can prove that they can get along, then they just go tell it to the judge and maybe they can get out of the program.”

Some are worried about possible litigation, should the state not receive its targeted water amount between the Antelope and Oroville water projects, a flow measured below the Arlington Bridge.

One nearby county did away with the state program, and is now faced with a lawsuit that made being independent even more expensive than if it had stayed under the state.

At the Plumas County level, the Board of Supervisors is hearing about the problems from District 2 Supervisor Robert Meacher and Brian Morris, general manager of the Plumas County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

Morris thinks they might be able to identify a local entity as a new watermaster within two months, for the Indian Creek water rights holders.

With this move, they will be ready in case property owners want to be independent from the state watermaster program.

State water board officials, including Mendenhall, will be among governmental representatives attending a public meeting Tuesday, Sept. 20, at 1 p.m. in Taylorsville.

The meeting location for the water rights holders' meeting will be the Indian Valley Gem and Museum Society clubhouse located just off Main Street next to the Taylorsville Cemetery. District Supervisor Robert Meacher said he will be unable to attend since the meeting will be on the same day the Board of Supervisors regularly meet.

Visit plumasnews.com for more information on this water rights meeting as it becomes available, and for a list of parcel numbers and the respective watermaster fee increases expected if nothing is changed before the tax bills go to print.

Some fees do not reflect a more than 400 percent increase. According to Mendenhall, this might be because those rights holders have had smaller, more frequent increases in the past, and not this one big increase presently proposed for the Indian Creek water rights holders.


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