It may come as a surprise to some (as it did to me), that when it comes to net revenues from power generation, NYWD is 50-50 partners with South Feather Water and Power Agency (SFWPA). Net revenues shared are those generated by three power houses.
SFWPA was known as the Oroville-Wyandotte Irrigation District (OWID) until 2003 when the agency decided to change its name to more accurately describe the agency’s purpose and service territory. SFWPA provides domestic, municipal, and irrigation water to Oroville, Palermo, and Bangor in southeastern Butte County. Irrigation water is and continues to be an important part of the services provided by SFWPA; however, SFWPA is also intensely focused on hydropower generation.
How did NYWD come to be revenue partners with SFWPA? We have to go back to the 1850s… when gold was buried treasure and water was merely a vehicle to obtain it. For me – water is the real treasure…after all, you can’t drink gold nor can you grow things with gold. Water truly is life.
Gold mining operations on the banks of rivers and streams, or on the flats in their upper reaches (“dry diggings”) were first operated by carrying water to the rocker (seen in top picture). Then came the “long tom” (shown in bottom picture) which worked using a continuous stream of water usually brought from a dam that had been erected to impound the water. As gold miners penetrated further back away from the streams the problem of obtaining water became difficult. Thus, began an era of ditch-digging “colossal in its character and astounding in its extent”. The largest of the ditches were the Forbestown Ditch, constructed to bring water to the Forbestown diggings, and the Palermo Ditch, constructed to bring water to the diggings at Ophir. Irrigation was a later sideline.
On November 20, 1856, the Butte Record remarks on the establishment of the town of Bangor. “Six weeks ago Bangor was unknown, now it numbers fifty buildings, consisting of stores, saloons, hotels, gambling houses.” This prosperity was attributed to the construction of the ditch known as the South Feather Land and Water Company’s system, or the Forbestown Ditch. You can view historic photos of the Forbestown Ditch on the NYWD website: https://www.nywd.org/history.
The Forbestown Ditch
Mining gave way to agriculture late in the 1800s and the South Feather Land and Water Company acquired many of the miners’ ditches.
In 1918 or 1919, the RRC [Railroad Commission] regulated two water companies in the area: the Palermo Land and Water Co. and the South Feather Land and Water Co. Their water supply was derived from different sources, but most of it was from water rights acquired during the mining days. The water companies were not pure utilities, but were primarily land developers. Most often the agreement for the sale of land would include a provision that obligated the Company to provide water. Some interested people got together and formed the Oroville-Wyandotte Irrigation District (OWID) in 1919 by acquiring the rights of those two private utilities. They did this by applying to the RRC, which authorized the sale of those utilities to the District. (RRC Decision No. 11334)
The Forbestown Ditch System originally carried water over a 40-mile route from Pinkard Creek through the communities of Woodleaf and Forbestown to the gold diggings. When OWID was formed in 1919, the agency assumed responsibility for the South Feather Land and Water Company’s water distribution system. Shortly after OWID acquired South Feather Land and Water Company’s infrastructure, Lost Creek Reservoir was constructed to store water for irrigation purposes, the Pinkard Creek diversion was inundated, and a new diversion for the Forbestown Ditch was constructed out of Lost Creek Dam (elevation 3,280 feet msl). Construction in 1962 of the Woodleaf Powerhouse, diversion tunnel, and penstock allowed for direct diversion to the Upper Forbestown Ditch from the penstock and the abandonment of the upper seven miles of the ditch.
OWID would become South Feather Water and Power Agency (SFWPA). The ditch system utilized for irrigation water by NYWD and SFWPA today is a modification and expansion of the ditch network constructed by early miners who diverted water from the Feather River to their mining claims. The Forbestown Ditch is a key water conveyance system for both districts.
North Yuba Water District is Born
North Yuba Water District was originally known as Yuba County Water District (YCWD) which was formed by legislative process on July 17, 1952. YCWD’s mission was to provide agricultural water to the farms and ranches in the North Yuba Foothill Communities within YCWD’s boundaries
The 1959 Agreement between South Feather and NYWD.
The subject of the agreement NYWD has with SFWPA generates a lot of heat in the community. It started as a fight over water rights for water from the Feather and Yuba River Watersheds back in the 1950s. This resulted in a demand from California State Department of Water Resources Board (DWR) that both parties settle their differences before that agency would move forward on approving permits for either of them.
By the mid-1950s, four water districts, OWID, Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA), Yuba County Water District (YCWD) and Browns Valley Irrigation District (BVID) were competing over water rights in the Feather/Yuba River Watershed.
Butte County land owners decided to invest in a series of dams and power-generating plants on the Feather River after the 1955 Flood of the Feather River. An agreement was secured with PG&E and OWID to finance the South Feather Water and Power Project, with a 50-year bond repayment. YCWD and OWID agreed to a series of negotiated contracts guiding the use of combined water and power-generating rights on both the Feather and Yuba River for 50 years until the bonds were paid off. The contracts were formally signed in 1959.
As part of the negotiated contracts, YCWD was guaranteed 3,700 acre feet of water and OWID was guaranteed 3,720 acre feet of water. In addition, YCWD had 4,500 acre feet of water available at Kelly Ridge on the Feather River. The maintenance of the Forbestown Ditch was split between both districts with OWID responsible for 75% and YCWD responsible for 25%. Net Power revenues for power generation from PGE were split with OWID receiving $49.00/acre foot and YCWD receiving $7.00/acre foot. However, this uneven split was only in force until the South Feather Power Project (SFPP) had been paid for, at which time the revenues from power generation would revert to a 50-50 split.
The 2005 Agreement
In 2002, OWID protested NYWD’s sale of water to Yuba City. This action is what eventually led to the DWR ordering both YCWD and OWID to settle their differences. In 2003, negotiations began with OWID and YCWD as the 50-year contract signed in 1959 and both agency’s permits were due to expire.
In the early 2000s, OWID became South Feather Water and Power Agency (SFWPA) and YCWD became North Yuba Water District (NYWD).
For the 2005 agreement, the water rights of each entity were negotiated. SFWPA would have 23,720 AF and NYWD would have 23,700 AF of water to put to beneficial use. SFWPA transferred their water right Permit 11518 which gave NYWD an additional 15,500 AF of water and the water permit on Oro Leiva (variously called Oroleve) Creek. SFWPA also signed quitclaim deeds for Oroleve Creek and the Forbestown Ditch, signing both resources over to NYWD. NYWD would thereafter be 100% responsible for the repairs and maintenance of the Upper Forbestown Ditch and would be responsible water losses relative to SFWPA’s water transported through the Forbestown Ditch.
The 2005 agreement guaranteed that NYWD would receive 50% of the net revenues from power generation at the Kelly Ridge, Woodleaf and Forbestown Powerhouses. Net revenue is the total amount of money coming in before the bills are paid. All bills (including any monies that need to go back into the reserve account) are paid from the net revenues and what remains (i.e. “profits”) is divided equally between the two agencies annually.
Power revenues projected during the contract negotiations were calculated using historical rainfall data going back 30 years and would have amply covered the cost of piping the Upper Forbestown Ditch. Projected revenues during contract negotiations were calculated as $5M per year for each agency. SFWPA and NYWD were required to meet a contribution of $7.5 million dollars for a contingency (reserve) fund for operation and maintenance of the Power Project. The contingency was funded the first year in 2011. Had the projected $5M in revenue materialized, the Forbestown Ditch could have easily been funded over the intervening years.
Unfortunately, after 2011, power revenues decreased. Droughts severely impacted the amount of water available for power generation and issues with extracting natural gas impacted power generation as well. Regardless, NYWD receives $709,000 annually, and additional monies when more profits are generated as occurred in 2013. In 2018, NYWD received a profit of approximately $1.39M. In 2017, NYWD received $2.2M.