This is the “Version 1” conclusion of the story What Should You Do If Your Neighbor Is Stealing Your Water? Version 2 will be out in a couple of weeks.
Sally Saint was convinced that her neighbor, Larry Lucifer, has been stealing water. She didn’t want to make an enemy of Larry but that may be impossible since Larry gets angry easily, has lots of opinions, and tells everyone else what they should do. Sally called the California Department of Water Resources Watermaster Supervisor, and he gave her detailed advice. So, what did Sally do with that advice?
Sally called the Water Board in Sacramento and found that Larry and she have a riparian water right. Larry has been filing Statements of Use for the ditch, including for the Saint’s and others’ parcels that get water from the ditch. As far as the Board knows, Larry is the sole owner of the water right.
Sally went over on Saturday and said hello to Larry. She even brought fresh-baked cookies. He was grumpy but willing to talk about irrigation from the Greig Ditch. After a few easy questions, Sally asked, “Larry, how do I know what my water right is?”
“I don’t know, it’s your job to figure it out for your property.”
Sally tried another tack: “I noticed that your field stays green through August, and mine starts drying up in July. I don’t know if this is correct, but it seems like maybe our field is getting less than our water right. What do you think?”
“Dang it Sally, I make sure some water gets to you. Do you have a way to measure it? I don’t, and you don’t, so how the heck do you know you are not
getting your full water right? Besides, I clean out the ditch and keep it flowing with my backhoe, my fuel, my time, and I never ask you for help.”
Sally was a little embarrassed. She had not thought about the work Larry did that helped her family out; she was getting to ready to acknowledge Larry’s help and tell him thanks when Larry barked, “You know what, Sally, I learned long ago don’t do anybody any favors. My mistake for not making you pay your part. Why don’t you get off my property, and I’ll have my attorney contact you. If that’s not good enough I’ll get a court restraining order. How about that? I’m not sure how much water is going to make it down the ditch next year. Now leave and don’t come back.”
Sally left, boiling mad and flabbergasted. What did she do wrong? Should she just forget it? Were there really jerks like this, who you can’t talk to? Sally went home and fumed, and then called the Water Board to demand some answers. What were her rights, and how did she figure them out? She couldn’t get anyone on the phone who would take the time; the Water Board was way too busy enforcing the SB 88 deadlines for measurement device installation. Sally called back to the Department of Water Resources in Red Bluff and talked to one of the Watermasters. She explained everything that had happened.
The Watermaster explained: “Yeah, I’m sorry Sally, sometimes that’s the way it goes. You have a riparian right, correct? Well riparian rights are undefined – per the California Constitution, it’s whatever you can apply reasonably and beneficially, without wasting it. You can’t ship it off your property, but you could use it anywhere, for any crop, livestock, and short-term storage less than 30 days. As the flow drops in the stream you have to share the loss with other riparian diverters. As a rough idea, you might have the full right through June 15 or 30, and by the end of August, maybe half, and the flow pops back up again at the end of October.
“You do have a right to maintain your ditch. However, that doesn’t mean a neighbor won’t sue, which costs money and time no matter what. If it were my place, I don’t think I’d walk on your neighbor’s land without permission.
“Hey, here’s an idea. There’s no reason you couldn’t divert your flow from your
own diversion. Yes, you’re right, you would have to pump it, since the creek is a little downhill of where it would need to get onto your place. The pump will cost a few hundred, plus some hundreds in sprinkler lines, plus some power cost each year, and right now you get the water for free with gravity. But if you wanted, you could avoid dealing with your neighbor on water. Oh, and since you would be pumping, think about putting in sprinklers to keep it efficient.
“Another thing to think about – what if he gets mad and cuts off the water completely? You could see a lawyer and take it to court, and it would be decided once and for all. But, a court action is very expensive, whether you win or lose, and you never know how a judge is going to decide. Having your own pump might be a lot less expense and hassle in the long run.
“At least you have the option of your own diversion; think about people who aren’t riparian and aren’t getting their water. They have to complain to the Water Board, or hire an attorney, and maybe even sue in court!
“I wish I had a better answer for you. Right, ‘water’s for fighting, whiskey’s for drinking,’ as the old saying goes. As you’re seeing now, sometimes water just seems like an excuse to carry on an argument. Putting in a pump might be your best option. Call back if you have any questions, okay? I hope it works out well in the end.”
The end of the story is that Sally talked with Mark, and she was careful not to talk about her neighbor at the salon – gossip spreads like fire in a small town. Mark and Sally decided to put in a small pump, some pipe, and some small sprinkler lines. That way, they would not have to deal with Larry at all, and they would make sure to irrigate all the pasture.
Next time we’ll look at Version 2 of the end of the story. Could things turn out differently, depending on how Sally approached Larry? We’ll see!