SNOW STILL lingers along the shady north bank of the South Fork of the American River in the American River Canyon. El Dorado Irrigation District draws 15,080 acre-feet of water from the South Fork and has been granted rights to another 17,000 acre-feet. The El Dorado County Water Agency is pursuing 40,000 acre-feet of area-of-origin water rights from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District's Upper American River Project. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene


County pursuing additional water rights

By From page A1 | January 03, 2014

Editor’s note — This is the second of a two-part series on the El Dorado County Water Agency’ s shift in strategy in seeking additional water rights.

Despite all the projected benefits of the revised water rights application, it is not without its critics.

One of them is hydrologist Robert Shibatani. In an e-mail to the Mountain Democrat, Shibatani complained the project would require El Dorado County taxpayers to pick up the tab for securing a water supply for Sacramento County.

According to him, “under this new proposed project, the original monies ($2.5 million spent so far), plus an additional $5 million would be incurred by El Dorado taxpayers to fund a project to provide El Dorado Water for groundwater banking in another county.

“Rather than putting El Dorado’s long-held excess water supplies on the open water transfer market … like other water agencies, and seeking the highest bidder, El Dorado has proposed a project that would directly benefit another county without asking that beneficiary for any financial contribution to the process.

“Do El Dorado taxpayers know that they are footing the entire environmental, legal, administrative and regulatory processing costs for a project that will benefit, in part, Sacramento County without having the latter co-fund any part of this joint effort?  Can El Dorado taxpayers really afford to subsidize Sacramento County water supply security costs?

“If this goes forward, it will be the cheapest water supply acquisition project for Sacramento County ever, since the approval and processing costs would be borne completely by the El Dorado taxpayer. I wonder how many El Dorado residents even know,” concluded Shibatani.

However, Shibatani has his numbers wrong, said Eggerton.

“In addition, if the water agency had gone ahead with their first proposal,” he explained, “they probably would have faced a contested hearing. Other agencies would fight it and make the hearing more expensive and complicated.”

“I also don’t think the State Water Board would approve it if only we were benefitting and it probably would invite litigation.

“The path we’ve chosen is to build broad support for the application to make the decision easier for the state board considering all the work we’ve put into it.

“We’ve changed the project just from taking care of our water needs to a project that has all these other aspects and lots of other benefits — human and environmental. It connects us with other agencies and communities in the same river system that are affected by the same issues. We’ve got so much in common and we need to work together. Doing so creates a broader group to work with and advocate for our needs.”

Signaling our intent

With adoption of the resolution in support of the revised application, Eggerton believes it sends an important and timely message to different audiences.

One, it’s a public statement of intent to other agencies EDCWA has been partnering with in its quest to secure further water rights.

“We also wanted to be on the record before the draft EIR for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan comes out,” said Eggerton. “We want to make clear to state and federal officials that their project should not redirect negative impacts upstream or interfere with upstream rights. It’s also part of our solution for regional water reliability.”

Saying he is confident the revised application will be successful, Eggerton added that the next step will be getting board approval for the award of the first phase of the EIR for the redesigned project. That process is being broken down into phases, he said, so the board can have as much control as possible, especially over its cost since it’s a sizeable investment.

“Our goal is in two to three years to have an actual hearing before the State Water Board and then obtain the water right. That would be final unless the decision was appealed.”

Once successful, the water rights to the 40,000 acre-feet would be held by the El Dorado Water and Power Authority and any revenue that comes in would be used to pay back the expenses of obtaining those water rights.

“We also need to have a conversation with the public about what we’re doing,” he said.

“This could be one of last opportunities to pursue water right under the area-of-origin law. Because of things in the works on flow-setting for Delta inflow and outflow, the tunnel project and other actions, the reality is there’s a lot of demand for water. And while area-of-origin rights may stay on the books, the reality is that those water rights may be reallocated in the future if not pursued now.”

Eggerton said pursuing these water rights will ensure a “water supply for our children and their children. This preserves our ability to make decisions locally about what do we want the future of this county to look like. Again, it can be recreational flows, rafting flows or think about how important agriculture is to our county.

“In all those things we have examples from the past when we didn’t make the investment and we lost those opportunities like the Upper American River Project and the Middle Fork Project. We see this right now with all the competing demands for water and all the investment being made around the Delta.

“If we’re going to obtain anything of value from area-of-origin rights, this is the time to do it. This really is the draw protection for future generations. I hope we’re not short-sighted and instead take the long-term view.

“Fortunately for the water agency, that’s our mission. These are not easy decisions, but they’re critically important. We’ve got to secure the water supply, this asset that we’ve been relying on for a long time.”

Note: As an update to this story, at the Dec. 11 meeting of El Dorado Water and Power Authority, the board approved awarding a contract to the firm Environmental Science Associates (ESA) to prepare a revised Environmental Impact Report for the revised water rights application — now called the Supplemental Water Rights Project. While the work required is divided into three phases, only phase one was approved for funding for the not to exceed amount of $577,890. Estimates for Phase II and III are from $3.3 million to $4.9 million.

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

Dawn Hodson

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