U.S. Water News Online
CHICO, Calif. -- In a state where water disputes often have
played out like old western movies, 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
"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
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
Until recently, the program's cost was split evenly between the
department and the water users, who paid their annual fees through
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
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
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.
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