Posted: Thursday, April 19, 2012 2:00 PM
Fees rose sharply when state funding eliminated
By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO -- A bill that could provide relief for water rights holders suffering the sticker-shock of sharply escalating watermaster fees is advancing in the state Senate.
The legislation by Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Fair Oaks, seeks to reverse a prohibition for the state Department of Water Resources to fund the watermaster program. It has passed the Natural Resources Committee and is now in the Appropriations Committee.
Although the bill, Senate Bill 1247, would not guarantee funding, its passage would enable farm groups and other advocates to try to secure some money over the next few years so that landowners could form their own special districts, said Margo Parks, the California Cattlemen's Association's associate director of government relations.
"To get funding for that program might be a challenge considering the state of the California state budget," Parks said. "But we do feel as though the watermaster program provides a public benefit, not only to the water users but citizens of the state. Water is a public resource, so we do think it is appropriate for the department to partially fund that program."
Water rights holders along certain creeks and rivers in Northern California face skyrocketing fees for watermaster services, which police how much water they use. State funding for the program was eliminated in 2011, leaving landowners to cover the program's roughly $1.2 million annual cost.
One Portola, Calif., cattleman, Paul Roen, saw his fees jump from about $7,000 to $19,000 a year, he said.
For him and others, the CCA is also backing a companion bill, Assembly Bill 1578, which would authorize an Indian Valley Watermaster District in Plumas County.
The watermaster program was created as part of water rights adjudications decades ago. The watermaster serves as a sort of referee to prevent or resolve disputes among neighboring landowners who share a water source.
The state water code has long called for irrigators to pay at least half the cost of the service, but the Legislature has usually picked up most of the tab -- until this fiscal year, when Gov. Jerry Brown zeroed it out.
The watermaster bills are among several agriculture-related pieces of legislation in Sacramento that are advancing or face key tests this month. Among the others:
* Assembly Bill 2509 by Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, passed the lower body's Natural Resources Committee unanimously on April 16 and is now in the Appropriations Committee. The bill enables excavation or grading of lands affected by natural disaster.
* Assembly Bill 2177, which would assign a prison term of up to seven years for exploding a device or committing arson on a beef feedlot, dairy, poultry or swine facility, passed the Public Safety Committee on April 17 and is headed for the Assembly floor.
To read the bills and analyses and track their progress, visit leginfo.ca.gov