What’s our water doing on their land
written by: Kelley Lincoln & Charley Custer
Much of Northern California’s water is being diverted south and Humboldt County land owners are being scrutinized for their water preservation and usage rights.
Rural landowners drawing from springs and creeks are under scrutiny. We all want our natural world to flourish “for as long as the waters shall flow to the sea.” Yet population pressures, land use practices, climate change, and—surprisingly—single-age, decades-old forests, all are lowering water levels in North Coast rivers to the point that creeks and whole reaches of our rivers run dry. Shrinking habitat and rising numbers of endangered species have moved the state Water Control Board and Department of Fish and Wildlife to investigate water users even in our cool and damp corner of hot, dry California.
Rural landowners drawing from springs and creeks are under scrutiny. Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Scott Bauer has estimated that 34 million gallons of water—up to a third of total flows—may be used for pot cultivation in southern Humboldt’s Salmon and Redwood Creeks flowing into the South Fork Eel. He based this on counting greenhouses and plants visible on Google Earth, and multiplying them by a commercial grower-suggested volume of water per plant.
In his presentations all over the North Coast and in Sacramento, Bauer notes the low number of “legal water rights” actually secured in these heavily drawn-down watersheds. State law, it turns out, has mandated since 1966 that surface water uses must be measured and reported annually. This law was not just unenforced but largely unknown to local landowners until 2010, when it was re-codified in Sacramento. Statewide, compliance is lower than10 percent, with follow-up from the state done only on a complaint basis. But environmental agency staff are beginning to file complaints about local landowners living along dry or drying streams.
Meanwhile, the state whets its appetite for more Northern California water with the proposed $12 billion twin-tunnel super-diversion that would pump Sacramento Valley water around the great, already drained Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, then up the water-depleted San Joaquin Valley, for consumption in Southern California. The headwaters of the Trinity River, a major cold-water source for the Klamath, are already captured and carried 600 miles south—and more water is wanted. In fact, two Central Valley water suppliers, San Luis Delta & Mendota Water Authority and Westlands Water District, obtained a temporary restraining order on a planned release of sixty five thousand acre-feet of water meant to insure a minimum Klamath River flow of 2800 cubic feet of water at the mouth. Their restraining order blocked flows of Trinity water from its natural course from August 15 through August 25th.
And with the controversial tunnels not yet built, Senator Dianne Feinstein is backing a federal Bureau of Reclamation plan to raise the Shasta dam that will flood the McCloud River–which in turn would require revision of the McCloud’s Wild and Scenic status. Might that revision start a slippery slope that erodes protections on North Coast rivers such as the Eel and Klamath, making them vulnerable to water mining (via new tunnels and dams already planned in the 1960s) for south-state use?
In Integrated Water Management Planning circles, when state water wardens are asked why upstream users should conserve water for in-stream flow at no compensation, while downstream users with Appropriative Rights may “transfer”—that means sell—the same conserved “public trust” water for their private profit; they reply “That’s a good question,” and recommend that upstream users transfer their groundwater first, for their own profit. But something’s missing here: endangered fish don’t swim in money, any more than rural landowners get to pay their mortgages or taxes with fish.
And as statewide water politics loom larger on the horizon, concerned community groups and residents continue to take action. Water storage tanks filled with rainfall or stream water in high-flow winter months are being installed across the region. County government has begun working to encourage rather than tax and red-tape these late-summer fish lifesavers. Sustainable grower guides have been printed and piled high in marijuana
supply stores, with explanations of how to conserve water and minimize wasteful and destructive practices.
Sanctuary Forest in the Mattole River headwaters is experimenting with groundwater recharging that imitates the effect of beaver dams, by blocking and soaking upper drainages for slow, late-summer leaching downhill. While it might seem easier just to get beavers, they are famously difficult to tell just what to do—and the same is often said of the rest of us.
But a great many of us live here to live with nature. Sanctuary Forest’s water storage and voluntary-forbearance program has led the grassroots drive to decrease water draws and protect watersheds and fish populations. Their program is now expanding to Redwood Creek with the Salmonid Restoration Federation and local support.
These local groups have difficulties getting through county and State Water Board bureaucracies. Complexities in basic water law are legion, since the days when Mark Twain first came to California and learned that “Whiskey’s for drinking, and water’s for fighting.” For starters, storing abundant winter water from your own unrestricted riparian right for use the following fall, simply because you want to help the fish, requires an
Appropriative Water Right. The bureaucracy is not easy to work through, but landowners can obtain a “Registration Permit.”
The Registration Permit process exists because “The Legislature found and declared that it was in the public interest to provide a timely, efficient, and economic procedure for the acquisition of rights to appropriate water for a small domestic use, including incidental stock watering and irrigation uses, a small irrigation use, and a livestock stockpond use, subject to prior rights,” according the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Water Rights website.
And so progress crawls forward, made easier with the help of local non-profits: Sanctuary Forest and Salmonid Restoration Federation both working to help residents on this matter as does the Mattole Restoration Council and Mattole Salmon Group. So does the California Department of Fish and Wildlife water rights liaison, Jane Arnold.
Here’s an introduction to some of the complexities.
Riparian rights are what you own when your property contains or borders a watercourse. The right to use that water is recognized by the state — yet the right’s voided when you save water from the wet season to use in the dry season, unless it’s groundwater (that’s water from a source that doesn’t flow off your property) or rain catchment off your roof. You need permits for storage tanks larger than 5000 gallons—but you can’t get a permit for those tanks without already having a permit for your house, which most rural Humboldters don’t have and can’t get. But you can string ten 5000-gallon tanks in series for 50,000 gallons of storage without further permitting perversities.
These prescriptions are different from the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 1600 Series regulations, which independently require water users to monitor, measure and report water use, and pay a $150 annual fee while doing so.
And the heat is rising with increasing numbers of industrial marijuana grows and the current drought. Biologist Bauer’s presentation on egregious pot-growing practices and water abuses is being shown across the state. His presentation labels huge industrial grows as 215 or medical marijuana grows despite corrections from local elected officials. It seems likely that agencies will soon stiffen mandates and enforcement of water law as the most efficient way to intercede in the environmental crimes that Google Earth displays to the world.
At the state level, the tens of thousands of people who participate in the North Coast’s marijuana economy are outlaws, in an ecologically odd extension of the Pacific Northwest, with no standing. Our past success at protecting natural ecosystems deepens responsibility for supporting them now, while the great subdivision-spawning, grape-growing and agricultural valleys south of us are mono-cropped so completely that their once-native life no longer exists to stake rival claims on resources, as our fish and fowl still do. So the extirpation of natural life down south makes us look bad for living with ours. We have a lot to learn, a lot to share—and a mess Mark Twain would be proud of.
For an overview of Humboldt grassroots initiatives, visit the Mattole Restoration Council’s website at www.Mattole.org.
To read or download the Humboldt Farmer’s Best Practices Guide beginning with water management information, go
Note: For eloquent and opinionated background on California’s latest water wars, see