Soaring Water-Use Fees Prod California Farmers, Ranchers to Seek More Control
CHICO, Calif. -- In a state where water disputes often have played out like old Sunday morning Westerns, Kevin Taylor is one of those who tries to keep the peace.
Taylor, a government "water cop," enforces court-decreed water rights under California's watermaster program.
But his job and the program itself may be in for big changes as farmers and ranchers faced with the prospect of soaring water-use fees fight to wrest control from the state and put it in the hands of individual counties.
"I'm not against people looking to save money, but I'm not sure if they realize how complicated this can be," said Taylor, a watermaster in far Northern California.
The effort is a response to one of several recent attempts by the state Department of Water Resources to create revenue through consumer-financed programs.
Agency officials say public investment is necessary to secure the future of California's water supply. But critics say it is the government's way of trying to fund its own projects without dipping into the state budget.
The watermaster program was established in 1924 amid escalating disputes over water rights. It now affects about 1,600 owners of water rights in Northern California _ most of them farmers _ from Napa to Siskiyou counties.
Watermasters measure stream flow and diversions to make sure water is allocated to users according to priorities and assigned rights. The service normally runs from April through September, during peak irrigation season.
Until recently, the program's cost was split evenly between the department and the water users, who paid their annual fees through property taxes.
But a 2004 state Senate bill placed the financial burden solely on water users. That year, the Department of Water Resources reevaluated its estimate of the program's cost, doubling it from about $800,000 to $1.6 million.
In 2005, the estimate increased again, to $2.2 million.
Jack Hanson, who runs a cattle and hay ranch near Susanville in Lassen County, said the proposed increases would have raised his annual water fees from about $876 to about $4,000.
"I don't know if it would have put me out of business," he said. But "each and every incremental cost squeezes us pretty hard."
Various provisions in the state budget in the past two years have prevented the department from collecting on its proposed fees, temporarily aiding the farmers.
Meanwhile, officials in many counties have been working to transfer control of the program to local entities such as resource conservation districts, saying locally controlled programs would be less expensive.
Fees to the state pay watermaster salaries, transportation costs, supplies and some of the operating costs of Department of Water Resources offices in Sacramento and Red Bluff.
State water authorities say the fees from water uses are a necessary way of dealing with the larger challenge of meeting California's long-term water needs.
However, Jerry Johns, the department's deputy director of water planning and management, said the department supports the idea of local control of the watermaster program, as long as it is funded by the users.
Under state law, county courts must approve any transfer in authority. That process will be helped by a bill signed in September by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that makes it easier to transfer the watermaster program to a local agency.
But Taylor _ whose service area encompasses Napa, Butte, Tehama and Shasta counties _ said he worries about the ability to maintain the program's quality under local or private control.
"This isn't a job just anybody could do," he said.
Source: Associated Press