In September 2017, I and my family moved to Oregon House. My husband and I were ready for a new chapter and a return to the country roots we established as newlyweds in rural Virginia in 1980. I had long dreamed of a huge vegetable garden, a milk cow, and maybe a few sheep or goats – exactly what we had in Virginia minus the milk cow. We wanted an independent, self-sustaining lifestyle in our golden years. After a long search, we settled on a home and property in Oregon House. One of the reasons we chose the property was the access to irrigation water, which was a very high priority.

I spent the Fall of 2017 and early Winter of 2018, logging and readying our 3-acre meadow to become the new family organic farm and livestock pasture. At the end of March 2018, we received a letter from NYWD telling us the agency would not be releasing irrigation water that year. I had just spent thousands of dollars and untold hours readying my meadow. Now I would have no water. I was stunned and outraged – how can an agency simply refuse to do the very thing the agency was created to do? Historically, NYWD is an irrigation agency as domestic water service came in later.

I set about trying to get answers. First I attended the Board meeting in April 2018. That was an eye opener for many reasons. I witnessed as the Board shut down the public, refused to answer questions, and ignored the public’s multiple requests for a Special Meeting to discuss the withholding of irrigation water. The decision to withhold water was made unilaterally by the General Manager; there had been no vote by the NYWD Board. Despite what the public wanted, and the demand for accountability and transparency, the NYWD Board, remained mute and impotent and did not stand up for the public.

NYWD General Manager gave five reasons over the next few months for why water would not be delivered. Reason #1: Water supply was marginal in 2018. Reason #2: Not all customers would get water, so we shouldn’t deliver any water at all. Reason #3: NYWD doesn’t have the means to deliver irrigation water. Reason #4: NYWD was working on the ditches. Reason #5: No snowpack.

I set about investigating those reasons – I am a scientist – that is what I do. Here is what I found:

I drove up to Little Grass Valley Reservoir to see for myself how much water was there – it was as full as it could be. Dry Creek – our source of irrigation water for at least the first portion of the season – is what fills Lake Mildred further downstream. Lake Mildred was spilling over, around, and under the dam. Therefore, Reason #1 was not true – water supply was not marginal.

Little Grass Valley Reservoir, May 2018. Chock full.
Lake Mildred May 2018. Also chock full.

Further, all other irrigation districts began delivering water on time and delivered water for their full season. SFWPA uses the very same watershed NYWD does. BVID in fact, extended their season so customers could wet down their property during the high fire risk season of early and late Fall. No pun intended – but Reason #1 didn’t hold water. It was blatantly false – water was in good supply.

This has recently been further borne out as SFWPA released their annual report (January 2019) and provided data on water use by NYWD. NYWD only used 2,779 acre feet of the 3,700 acre feet of water that is solely for our use from Little Grass Valley Reservoir. We had 1,000 acre feet of water that we could have been using in 2018. That water is gone – you cannot get a rain check on that water. Even more disturbing – if water is available and is not taken – California Department of Water Resources can re-write the water permit to reduce the amount of water we are permitted to take to the amount used. WE CAN LOSE THAT 1,000 ACRE FEET PERMANENTLY.

I also looked at Reason #2: If everyone doesn’t get water, we shouldn’t deliver any water. This would apply if the community had been polled to query whether people wanted the irrigation water to be all or nothing. We weren’t. Therefore, Reason #2 did not hold up under scrutiny.

Reason #3: NYWD doesn’t have the means to deliver irrigation water. The GM claimed that SFWPA was using all the room in the Forbestown Ditch and there was no room left to convey irrigation water to NYWD customers. I requested all of the data from SFWPA from 2010 to 2018. (If SFWPA is using 11 cfs in the Forbestown Ditch, there is no room left for NYWD irrigation water.) A summary of the raw data showed that SFWPA had only ever used all the room in the ditch (their 11 cfs) in 2015 and then only for 16 days of a 180-day season. In 2018, SFWPA began using 11 cfs in the Forbestown Ditch in mid-August meaning that NYWD irrigation customers could have been receiving irrigation via the Forbestown Ditch up until August. Reason #3 does not hold up to scrutiny either.

Reason #4: NYWD was working on the ditches. First, let me begin by saying that I reached out to GMs of other water districts and asked them when they conduct planned work on their ditches – the answer was the same across the board: they conduct planned work during the off-season. Further, no water district deliberately dries out their ditches as it becomes an open invitation to burrowing animals to infest earthen berms and levees, further weakening and compromising the integrity of the ditches. Work on the Oregon House-Dobbins Canal did not start until September – thus; Reason #4 was also not correct. The community could have been receiving irrigation water from April through August – which would have been a huge benefit during the high fire season by keeping our lands green and our ponds full.

Reason #5: No snowpack in Challenge. This brings up two mysteries: #1 – There has been no substantive snowpack in Challenge in decades, so how did this mythical “snowpack” even get into the conversation around water for Dry Creek? #2 – where and by whom was the myth propagated that this non-existent snowpack is the source of the water filling Dry Creek? It isn’t. Dry Creek continues to run as it always has, despite no substantive snowpack in Challenge. There has never been a hydrologic study to determine the various sources of water that fill Dry Creek; however, it clearly isn’t snowpack. It may be a combination of precipitation, runoff, subterranean streams, seeps or springs and/or an aquifer. The only way to know with certainty is to have a hydrologic study conducted. Reason #5 was also not true – Dry Creek is not filled with snowmelt from the mythical Challenge snowpack.

After all my investigations, none of the stated reasons could be true, so what was the real purpose behind denying NYWD irrigation customers their water? Why deny a small community – many of whom have livelihoods dependent on their irrigation water – and who live in one of the most high risk fire areas in the Foothills – their water? The truth has not come out and I (and the entire community) are left with the question of WHY? and if it happened once – would NYWD do this again?

All public agencies must be transparent and accountable.

I am but one, but as a Director I will never sit idly by while the GM makes unilateral decisions about our water. I will never vote to refuse the release of irrigation water unless we are in a severe drought situation as happened in 2015. I am but one of five. Water must be released beginning April 15th and once the Dry Creek supply is gone, we must implement the water we are entitled to from Little Grass Valley Reservoir. I never again want to be stuck with an unanswered WHY? The people of this community deserve better than that.

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