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County tries approach to pursuing new water rights

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From page A1 | January 01, 2014 | 12 Comments

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.”

The redesign

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 dhodson@mtdemocrat.net. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 12 comments

  • robertdnollDecember 29, 2013 - 11:51 am

    good to see they are looking to the future instead of depending on failed policies of the past

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  • JimJanuary 01, 2014 - 9:10 pm

    Failed water policies and negotiations of the past were almost entirely orchestrated by Jack Sweeny. Jack made certain the right people got the preliminary review contracts. The water project failed because Jack thought he was smarter than the SMUD attorneys. Millions, millions and millions were spent for the failed SOFAR and Texas Hill projects. Now the land has 200 % more homes to buy out and ten times the environmental requirements making the water projects just too expensive to build. The county bought the site with public bonds though Brown and Wood Bond Counsel SF who received a percentage commission out of the 22 million in bonds, the CAO also talked openly about receiving a commission for negotiating the deal. Then the site was given to EID who paid off the % of bond money used to purchase the land. Regardless of what they say, EID is simply holding the land for the right developer. The site is two thousand acres of the most beautiful land in El Dorado County along both sides of Weber Creek between Cedar Ravine Rd and the Weber Creek Bridge just past Big Cut. Which ever developer ends up with the land will have a real pal in Jack Sweeny’s son currently on the Rep. Central Committee and soon to run for office. Additional help will come from Assembly member Bigelows office where his wife handles everything local for the Assemblyman.

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  • Phil VeerkampJanuary 01, 2014 - 9:42 pm

    Jim, you make a rather sweeping statement when you say, "Failed water policies and negotiations of the past were almost entirely orchestrated by Jack Sweeny". Help me here, Jim. What was the time interval from conception to failure of SOFAR. And in what year did Jack first win his BOS seat? I seem to recall that the failure of SOFAR was more a victory for Bill Center and his rafting interests than a failure traceable to Mr. Sweeney.

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  • JimJanuary 02, 2014 - 9:15 am

    In Jacks own words: “That history and an interest in construction and the California Environmental Quality Act, especially as it related to water rights and the SOFAR project of the mid-1980s “got me into this.” Veerkamp, the events of the time were above your pay grade and need to know. Jack had limited education and experience and should not have not been allowed to proceed when he insisted on negotiating water rights on behalf of El Dorado County though the late 80s and 90s resulting in failure after failure. He was at the helm when the millions and millions were flushed down the toilet. Support for the SOFAR project came mainly from real estate development interests and others who stand to benefit immediately who mostly paid for Jacks election. Additionally, to help foster the project, the SOFAR Council was formed. Membership donations provided for road signs, news releases, public information meetings, petitions, and advertising in local newspapers. Political support was gained from the area's Assemblyman Norm Waters. You suggest failure of the water project was a victory for Bill Center alone. Not true, opposition was equally supported by other rafting companies which feared rightly that flow reductions in the white-water sections of the South Fork American River will inhibit river travel. They also feared that upon completion of the Upper Mountain Project, the Lower Mountain Project will be actively pursued; its completion would put an end to their livelihood. Others who question or oppose the project include the Maidu Group of the Sierra Club, Friends of the River, the Environmental Planning and Information Council of El Dorado County (EPIC), Water and Power Resource Service, Pacific Gas and Electric, Sierra Kayak School, American River Canyon Association of West Sacramento, El Dorado Wine Grape Growers, California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), Concerned Citizens for Rural Resources, Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS), Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, the owners of homes that would be inundated by the proposed project, and other concerned individuals and groups. Also, in a drought year when water levels were low someone seems to have missed the fact the remaining 30% of the water was below the flow level and would need to be pumped out making the cost of the water almost equal to pure gold.

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  • Phil VeerkampJanuary 02, 2014 - 2:45 pm

    Jim advises me, "Veerkamp, the events of the time were above your pay grade and need to know. Help me out here, Jim. I am retired. What is my pay grade? Also, what is my (or anybody's) "need to know". Just who th'fuk are you anyway, Jim?

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  • Phil VeerkampJanuary 01, 2014 - 11:50 pm

    Joe, a little research suggests that your "Sweeney theory" is baseless. In the following link to a scholarly report on SOFAR Supervisor Dub Walker and Water Agency chairman Joe Flynn appear, but there was no mention of Sweeney. What is your motive, Joe, in posting such blatantly false assertions? LINK - Sofar - A Small-Town Water Diversion Project on the South Fork, American River - Russell D. Langley

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  • Pat SnellingJanuary 02, 2014 - 2:25 pm

    Thanks Phil for the helpful link....

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  • Pat SnellingJanuary 02, 2014 - 2:38 pm

    10,000 af of the 40,000 af was allocated to Georgetown Divide PUD. The County organized the EDWPA to include GDPUD and their 10K af. EDWPA went with a plan that had ALL of the 40K af go down to the South Fork, making it near impossible for GDPUD to access their 10K. (Could have tapped the water out by Loon Lake -- because it was Loon Lake's water that was taken from GDPUD). After GDPUD with the Board of Supervisors, EDC Water Agency and EID in secret negotiations, Norm Krizl and his buddies on the Board gave up their rights to the water -- not the rate payers, not the public.... the Board walked away. The 10K af would have DOUBLED GDPUD's water supply. Now the Highway 50 corridor will have full access to water that the Divide desperately needs.

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  • Phil VeerkampJanuary 02, 2014 - 9:42 am

    Jim, thank you for acknowledging your error in pointing out that it was the FAILURE of SOFAR that got Jack into the game. SOFAR was not Jack's failure. SOFAR's failure sparked Jack's career and motivated him. Friends of the River (Bill Center), Maidu Group of the Sierra Club, environmentalists, SMUD and others were the forces that saved EDC's water for future use in SoCal and the California Aqueduct and the CVP. Bill Center et al are in effect SoCal agents . . . always were . . . always will be. SOFAR they have been quite successful, regardless of my pay grade.

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  • Placerville my home townJanuary 02, 2014 - 7:12 pm

    I think your going overboard in your efforts to support your buddy Jack Sweeney and that Jim has a couple of good points and additional information that sounds accurate matching how I recall events during Jacks reign of terror: If a captain’s ship sinks because of poor maintenance, the captain is at fault. Not the previous Capt. who failed to carry out the maintenance that caused the ship to sink

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  • residentJanuary 02, 2014 - 7:18 pm

    Regrettably, the Sweeney recall effort failed.

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  • Phil VeerkampJanuary 02, 2014 - 2:54 pm

    I take your point, Pat. But I anticipate that Bill Center, "keep it rural", measure Y, et al will again prevail and send "our water" south. No beneficial use means no water. We will "keep it rural" and forfeit the water. GDPUD is rural . . . and dry. Some are happy with that result, Pat.

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