Editor’s note — This is the first of a two-part series on how the El Dorado County Water Agency and El Dorado Water and Power Authority are reshaping their approach to gaining additional water rights.
Seeking to lock in additional water rights for the county while they still can, on Nov. 13 the El Dorado County Water Agency voted in support of a resolution to go after 40,000 acre-feet of water under the aegis of a joint powers authority called the El Dorado Water & Power Authority, which was formed back in 2004.
Made up of EDCWA, the County of El Dorado, and the El Dorado Irrigation District, EDWPA is pursuing the additional water rights to cushion the county in dry years as well as supply the amount of water needed when the county is eventually built out.
The water rights being sought would come from SMUD’s (Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District) Upper American River Project.
Authorized in 1957 by the Federal Power Commission, the project consists of 11 dams and eight powerhouses using water from the South Fork of the American River and its tributaries with some water drawn from the Rubicon River. Project dams provide water storage of about 430,000 acre-feet.
SMUD has both consumptive and hydropower rights to the water, although SMUD uses the water primarily for power generation while Sacramento uses it for consumption.
Dave Eggerton, who is general manager of EDCWA, said the idea of pursuing additional water rights followed an assessment of the county’s water needs based on the build-out of the county as detailed in the 2004 General Plan.
“We wouldn’t use it (the 40,000 acre feet) all on day one,” he said. “But the need for water would accrue over time as our county continues to grow. A big portion of it would be for new agricultural supply as identified in the General Plan. The petition to the state was that we’d have a water right and in time, as needed, would start using it. Ultimately when we reach build out, we would have need for the full amount.”
Original filing hits a wall
Eggerton said the El Dorado County Water Agency’s initial application for the additional water rights dates back to 2008.
In making the filing, they were not inventing new rights, he said, but rather were drawing on statutes already on the books.
“We filed the application under area-of-origin laws. The basic idea being that when they constructed state and federal projects, they made assurances to those communities upstream where the water originated that those communities would have the water that flows across their land and would come out of the project,” he said.
“Originally our approach was to have state-assigned water rights at Folsom reassigned to us under the area-of-origin law,” he said. “The state has affirmed that right in court decisions. It came with a 1927 priority date. So under the state water law system, we felt we had right to the water.
“But what we found is when we filed an application, we got a really strong reaction in opposition to the application. The draft Environmental Impact Report also had a lot of comments on it.
“Basically there was recognition by this board that if we pursued this action before the water board, we would be the only ones speaking in support of it. Everyone downstream in the Sacramento region was upset with the way it was handled, that we were using a cram-down approach.”
Eggerton said although the board recognized the county had a strong legal claim to the water, the reality was that because of the complexity of water law and demand, they didn’t want to have to stand alone in making the claim.
“So we took more of a partnership approach to make it work and get those opposing it to support it,” he said. “That was the direction we got from the board: to try to find a way to partner with others downstream in the Sacramento region to the benefit to everyone.”
The result was that over the past two years, agency staff have worked on strengthening the application in that direction.
“We have a really strong project now,” said Eggerton. “It is so strong that I think it will be the paradigm for area-of-origin filings for new water rights because what we’re trying to do is recognize all the requirements of state law along with goals that balance human and environmental needs. That’s what the state is looking for because of all the demand from species, communities and agriculture.”
Eggerton says the revised application has elements that accomplish multiple goals by changing the approach used to secure those water rights.
The most significant change is rather than squirreling away the water in the county, the proposal is to bank the water in the Sacramento County underground aquifer instead.
According to Eggerton, this reduces the worries of those reliant on the water and avoids the prohibitive cost of building a reservoir.
“In this county, the only reliable public groundwater supply of water is in the Tahoe Basin. Elsewhere it’s just fractured granitic water and pockets of water for private wells,” he said. “But in the lower American and Sacramento region is a groundwater basin with a lot of excess capacity for storing water.
“There have been efforts in the past to make use of it. That way in dry years you have banked water in the ground to turn to and pump for water supply to lessen diversion out of the river. That’s what we’re trying to do here — to use this asset in our local interest.
“There will be lots of water available under this, if we’re successful and we think we will be. We can partner with other agencies and bank this water into the groundwater basin. The net effect would be to put a lot of this water into the ground. That was one of the reasons why water agencies in our county joined the water authority in Sacramento a number of years ago. It was to physically find a way to connect our county with the groundwater basin in Sacramento County and to connect the entire watershed as some measure of drought protection.
“It also ties in with Bay-Delta issue. If the tunnels go in and diversions are taken upstream, and if flow requirements are set to make the system work, that means we have to be paying attention to our own regional water supply reliability. That’s why you see it in the resolution references to the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan. We want to get water rights under area-of-origin law now because of the competing pressures for water. The window could be closing to pursue those water supplies.”
Eggerton said at present they are looking at storing water in a groundwater basin north of the American River. But they will continue to look at areas south of the American River as well, in which case they will be dealing with two different joint power authorities as partners.
“Groundwater banking is important,” he said. Other agencies are already doing some of this. There is a big regional effort to realize this asset and this project is just one more piece of those efforts.”
Eggerton said another part of the redesigned application is its environmental component, saying one example of this is leaving enough water in the lower American River to provide habitat protection for fish like steelhead and chinook salmon.
A last component of the application has to do with water efficiency. “Water efficiency is a legal requirement and the state could reduce or eliminate districts that waste water,” he said. “This project could help us meet those requirements and allow us to come up with other system improvements that could potentially help us conserve water.”
Transfers within the region could also help generate revenue to help pay for water system improvements, but this is only an ancillary part of the project, said Eggerton. The idea is not to market water, but it does present an opportunity for keeping water rates down in this county.
“Potentially it would allow EID to develop the White Rock diversion point, which EID is currently studying,” he said. “We could take the water at the White Rock diversion point and maybe run a pipe from the river across to Placerville to the Bray Reservoir site and build a water treatment plant. This would be a revenue source to help pay for that.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.