Busting Myths – Search for The Truth

When I first arrived in Oregon House in 2017, I was drawn into the irrigation water world when, for no reason, North Yuba Water District (NYWD) refused to release irrigation water in the 2018 irrigation season. My education in all things NYWD began through acquaintanceship with long-time residents in the community including customers, annexed taxpayers, and former directors of the NYWD, and through my own extensive research. As a research scientist – research is what I do and it is second nature to me. Therefore, I read and researched everything I could find regarding the formation of NYWD, its assets, relationships, and most importantly – its permits.

I made use of the EWRIMS reporting system and downloaded copies of the NYWD permits and reports on water usage. I also read and researched the 1959 and 2005 agreements that NYWD maintained with South Feather Water and Power Agency (SFWPA) – NYWD’s partner in revenues from hydropower generation. I was astonished to learn that SFWPA and NYWD share the main water conveyance for our local area – the Forbestown Ditch (FTD).

Over the ensuing months a story formed – that was oft repeated in board meetings that I attended as a member of the public and later as a Director on the board. This story went something like this and should be very familiar:


  1. NYWD has 3,700 acre feet (AF) of water that is called the “free water” or “Tier 1” or “Block 1” water – depending on who you talk to.
  2. “Tier 2” or “Block 2” water is the 4,500 – 10,000 AF that is sold to Yuba City and the proceeds are split 50/50 with SFWPA.
  3. “Tier 3” or “Block 3” waters (10,000 -15,500 AF) are used for hydropower generation.

If NYWD wishes to use any of the “Tier 2 or Tier 3” water – NYWD has to compensate SFWPA for the loss of hydropower generation revenues. Tier 1 – the 3,700 AF – is “free” in that we do not have to pay SFWPA for using that water.

However, I did not have a thorough understanding of the permits and the consequences of the 2005 agreement until I went in person to Sacramento and met with California State Water Resources Control Board (WRCB). It was an eye-opener to say the least. Here is what I learned:

  1. The entire story described above is an artifact of the 2005 agreement.
  2.  The “three tiers” have nothing to do with NYWD’s permits.
  3. NYWD is authorized via their permits to take 23,700 AF of water annually for beneficial use.
  4. Beneficial use is defined solely as “consumptive use”. Consumptive use is only two things: domestic water service and irrigation water service.
  5. The permit process ultimately leads to a license. That is the end of the journey for an entity that requested water rights. A permit is initially issued when a project is proposed (e.g. forming a public agency to deliver irrigation water), and once the project is complete, the state reviews the project and the associated water use and issues a license.
  6. If an agency does not have a documented record of taking and beneficially using all the water they are authorized to take – the state will ultimately modify, reduce or revoke the rights of that agency to that amount of water when the license is issued.
  7. The reason that the FTD is restricted to 24 cubic feet per second (CFS) is because of a PG&E-issued restriction that originated with the creation of the South Feather Hydropower Project. The less water in the FTD, the more water that can go to hydropower generation. The 24 cfs “restriction” is not related to anything in any state-issued permit. It is the amount of water PG&E allowed to be diverted at SF14 into the FTD.

(SF14 is the diversion point where water is diverted into either the FTD or the penstock of the Woodleaf Power Tunnel. To view the maps of the NYWD and [part of the] SFWPA systems you can go here:).

We are authorized to take 23,700 AF – for free – as granted by the State of California. Currently, as a result of the 2005 agreement, we are only allowed 3,700 AF of “free” water – the rest of the water (20,000 AF) is used for hydropower generation and a water sale to Yuba City. After our remaining 20,000 AF of water goes through the hydropower system to generate hydropower (and thus revenues), NYWD sells between 4,500 – 10,000 AF of our water to Yuba City. The profits from the water sale are split with SFWPA as we are using their conveyances to get the water to Lake Oroville for the sale.

None of the water used for hydropower generation or for the Yuba City water sale is considered beneficial use by the WRCB. As a result, NYWD stands to lose that 20,000 AF of water permanently.

So in essence, when NYWD entered into the 2005 agreement, they gave away our most valuable asset – our water.

The officials who agreed to the 2005 agreement, were blinded by the short-term dollar signs dancing in front of their eyes – NYWD receives approximately $190,000.00 per year for the water sale to Yuba City. Per the 2005 agreement – NYWD also receives 50% of the revenues from hydropower generation after expenses. I am sure that looked like a bunch of money. However, what this really was – was short-sightedness and throwing out the baby with the bath water.

WHY? Because water sales and hydropower generation are not beneficial uses. Over the last (approximately) 10 years, 20,000 AF of the 23,700 AF that NYWD is entitled to use, has not gone to beneficial use. This means that we have a record of not using our water as dictated by the State of California and therefore NYWD stands to lose the entire 20,000 acre feet when the State examines our reports at the end of the licensing process – which will occur no later than 2040.

NYWD did NOT place their most important duty as their highest priority: safeguarding NYWD’s primary asset – (the true gold treasure NYWD possesses) – our water rights to 23,700 AF. Instead, NYWD placed short-term financial gain as their highest priority and did not look forward to the consequences that decision would have on the future of NYWD’s water rights and the fate of NYWD’s customers, rate payers, and tax payers.

One very unpleasant surprise I learned, was that NYWD received no monies from hydropower generation in 2019 and that NYWD would receive no revenues from power generation in 2020 either. This is largely due to the power outages that are now routine in our area, as well as the increase in solar and wind energy production. SFWPA is uncertain whether enough hydropower revenues will be generated in the future to provide any profits to both agencies.

Despite the fact that the NYWD General Manager was informed that NYWD would not receive any revenues in 2019 or 2020 when he “prepared” the 2019-2020 “budget” – he withheld this information from both the public and this Director. (I do not know if he informed the other Four Directors).

The trade of water rights for financial gains would not last more than a few years, as no revenues are coming in from hydropower generation at this time. Thus, NYWD traded their water rights for short-term financial gains. NYWD traded their real gold treasure for lead.

NYWD has ensured that we will lose our rights to at least 20,000 AF of water by 2040 by selling it to make money from non-beneficial uses. By 2040, NYWD will not have any water to sell to Yuba City, nor will we have any water to generate revenues through hydropower generation. NYWD made a trade – short-term financial gain in exchange for the permanent loss of our water to future generations.

SFWPA has attempted to invite NYWD to the table to talk. However, the NYWD GM has not brought the invitations to the Board and the Four Directors are not interested in meeting with SFWPA. I AM. I am very interested in sitting down with SFWPA. Our two agencies have a great deal to discuss and SFWPA is open to having those discussions. Director Gary Hawthorne does not want to sit down with SFWPA. In his words: “We will lose – what do we want to lose?”

I disagree – contracts are meant to be re-negotiated – and they can be – if the right people are at the table. You don’t walk into a negotiation pre-determining that you will lose. In addition, from having attended multiple SFWPA board meetings, I am aware that SFWPA is looking to make some big changes that fully align with the goals of the NYWD customers, taxpayers, and rate payers.

One thing I do know – SFWPA takes very good care of their customers – and treat their customers with the utmost respect and care. The GM, SFWPA management staff, attorney, and the SFWPA board directors answer any and all questions from the public at board meetings – even public that are not part of SFWPA! and they actually listen to the public and honor their requests.

You can watch a video and listen to an audio of the February 2020 NYWD Board meeting. The video ran out at approximately 1.5 hours in; so to hear the entire discussion (it is a long one) you need to watch the video and listen to the audio. You can advance the audio to the point where the video quit. You may use the links at the end of this blog post.

In the meantime, in the words of Director Doug Neilson at the February 27, 2020 NYWD Board Meeting: “I am fine with the 2005 agreement” (aka. 3,700 AF). WHY? Why is he fine with permanently losing 20,000 AF of water?

Listen to it with your own ears:


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