Watermaster fees shock irrigators

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Bill Mendenhall, branch chief of water management for the California Department of Water Resources, talks to a colleague on the phone Nov. 17. Mendenhall oversees the watermaster program in Northern California, for which landowners are seeing their fees skyrocket because of state funding cuts.

Governor zeros out funding for program that monitors rights

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

RED BLUFF, Calif. -- Water rights holders along certain creeks and rivers in Northern California face skyrocketing fees for a service that polices how much water they use.

State funding for the California Department of Water Resources' watermaster program was eliminated this year. Landowners now have to cover the full cost of the program: about $1.2 million annually.

For some irrigators such as John Menke, who raises purebred Red Angus cattle in Mugginsville, Calif., the fee increase is as much as sevenfold. Menke's bill for watermaster service rose from $1,245 last year to $8,500 this year.

The charges showed up on landowners' property tax bills, so they will be delinquent if they don't make their first of two installments by Dec. 10.

"For anybody who has a fairly large water right, because they use a multiplier factor, the fees get to be outrageous," Menke said. "Anybody that had a big water right is getting killed by this."

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.

Today 10 full-time DWR watermasters and their staffs work with landowners in various areas, including the Scott and Shasta valleys in Siskiyou County, along four creeks in eastern Shasta County, in the Upper Feather River watershed in Plumas County, in a frost protection district in Napa County and in two ground-water basins in Southern California.

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 year, when Gov. Jerry Brown zeroed it out.

"Our costs didn't go up," said Bill Mendenhall, the DWR's Red Bluff-based branch chief over water management. "Our costs (this year) were within 5 percent of what they had been. It was just a matter of who was paying the bill."

The increases come after property owners dodged a similar bullet about a decade ago, as funding for the program was cut and later restored amid cries of protest from landowners. The first scare prompted irrigators in Lassen County to hand watermaster duties to a local water district, while Modoc County started handling them itself.

Property owners in Siskiyou County are considering going down the same path. A superior court hearing is set for Nov. 29 in Yreka to consider a petition to activate the Scott and Shasta Watermaster District, which was authorized by the Legislature in 2007.

But such a move is not without risk, Mendenhall said. A private district wouldn't have the legal muscle the DWR has to fend off lawsuits, he said, and about a dozen stream gauges within the proposed Siskiyou district would still have to be monitored at a cost of about $90,000.

And even if a new district is formed, irrigators still owe for the DWR's services from July 1 until the district takes over, Mendenhall said.

Some landowners are considering paying last year's amount and hope the Legislature comes along with more relief, Menke said. But such relief isn't as likely now as it was 10 years ago, said Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

"I don't want to say we've quit trying to get the funding put back in place," said Merkley, who's fought in past years to maintain the funding. "But when you're looking at the state budget being in the state it's in, $1.23 million is not that much but it's for a very select and small area.

"You're fighting the tide if you're going to try to get funding restored, and I think our resources are better spent assisting our residents in that area to get a cost-effective program on their own," he said.

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