Back in 2005, Arnold and Eileen Williamson bought property near South Cow Creek in Shasta County. They live in San Bernardino and plan to retire early, and build a new house on their land. The parcel is part of an old ranch just off Highway 44.
The Williamsons paid $220,000 for the 3.55 acre lot. That seemed high compared to similar parcels in the area, but they were assured the land has adjudicated water rights from South Cow Creek.
Arnold and Eileen brought their travel trailer to live on the land while they are building a new house. Their savings account is in good shape so they are going to build a nice 2,200 square foot, single story ranch house with a garage and a shop. They talked to a well driller 10 years ago and he assured them it would be easy to put in a well, for a cost of around $18,000.
When Arnold and Eileen went to get a permit to drill a well, they ran into unexpected problems. Parcels on either side have their septic systems close to the common property lines, so their possible well locations are few. Maybe a bigger issue is the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014. Will their pumping rate be limited, and will their well-drilling permit application get held up?
Now the Williamsons are checking into their surface water right. Is it enough for some pasture for horses and a few cows, in addition to the house and garden? The Turings who live on the east side say there are no water rights. The Poulans, to the west, say they have lived here for 6 years and they have never had water – they think the water right was bought off the place, or lost because of non-use. Now the Williamsons are upset and headed toward just plain mad. The real estate agent said they had rights, and didn’t the title companies insure it?? After a few frantic calls, they found out that title companies don’t insure water rights. But, their realtor gave them the number of some folks over on the north side of the highway, and they have a “decree map”. Arnold and Eileen head over to the Winters’ place to look over the maps. Brad and Jenny Winters even have a web address where the decree and maps can be downloaded: https://allwaterrights.com/some-decrees-maps/ The Water Board’s web page has the decree, but no maps: http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/board_decisions/adopted_orders/judgments/docs/cowcreek_jd.pdf.
It turns out that the Cow Creek adjudication does not have maps, but an engineering report done a few years before the decree was issued does have the maps. Brad and Jenny have that report, too, so they have Sheets 1 through 5 showing the “Diversions And Irrigated Lands” on Cow Creek. Besides that, they have the link to where they can get the South Cow Creek decree, and a link to a blog that has the maps not on the Water Board’s web site: https://allwaterrights.com/some-decrees-maps/ Sheet 5 covers the area including the Winters and Williamson places. Sheet 5 has a lot of “irrigated lands” according to the legend – the green areas.
By looking at the maps, and their Assessor Parcel Map they have in their escrow package, it sure looks like their property is completely within the green area. Great! Now, how do they figure out if they actually have a water right?
Arnold and Eileen wonder, can they figure this out themselves? Brad and Jenny tell them, they sure can, and there is a document online that explains how to do it: https://water.ca.gov/-/media/DWR-Website/Web-Pages/Programs/All-Programs/Watermaster-Services/Files/Water-Rights-Reapportionment-Method.pdf. They take a look at it and see that, yes, the document fully explains the process, but it requires having either AutoCAD or GIS software. Also, it will take deep familiarity with the decree – and it is starting to look like a 3-day job just to understand it enough for their parcel! Arnold and Eileen don’t have the software or experience, so they decide it’s not worth their time to learn this…and they are not sure if they can do it right.
After asking around, Arnold and Eileen figure out they will need to see an attorney. They call around and find out there are a couple of engineering companies that can see them faster, and they might cost less. They picked Rights To Water Engineering to help figure out their water rights. Within a couple of weeks, they have a nice report in their hands and answers to their questions. So what did they find out? The map below is one of several from the report they got from the engineer, showing their property boundary on the 1965 decree map of irrigated lands:
The report cost $1,500. The engineer warns them that if it gets contentious and they can’t work out access to the water with their neighbors, they may end up having to get legal help. He recommends a couple of local water rights attorneys if it comes to that – there are some good lawyers who specialize in in water rights. For now, though, they have documentation they can discuss with their neighbors to work on getting their water right to their property.
Their property is on land that back in 1968 belonged to Howard and Gladys Leggett. It has an adjudicated second priority water right for irrigation equal to 0.063 cubic feet per second, or 28.5 gallons per minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from March through October. This 2nd priority right is less than the second and third priorities on the upper creek and tributaries, but it is the highest irrigation priority on the lower creek. Back when the property was flooded, that was usually enough to flood irrigate their entire lot to grow pasture or hay. That’s great news!
As natural flows drop during the summer that amount is reduced and everyone with a lower creek second priority has to reduce their diversion by the same percentage. In normal and wet years they could keep their pasture, hay, or whatever else they plant, irrigated for most or all of the irrigation season. And whether or not they use the water, the right does stay with the land and protect their property value; there is no provision for the expiration of water rights in the decree (the same as for nearly all surface water rights decrees).
What else was in their report? There was a cover letter, and next some excerpts from the decree. Schedule 1 lists the places of use for all the original owners. The Leggetts’ description takes up most of page 60; the Williamson’s property is on the 69.8 acres listed in the second paragraph for the Leggett land:
Schedule 2 lists all the points of diversion, whether gravity diversions or pumps. The Leggett property actually could get water from two diversions, a pump from the creek, and a proposed second, movable diversion on the creek. That’s convenient – per the decree they could already divert their water from someone else’s existing diversion, or pump their water from Diversion 95, or they could get it from anywhere they can get agreement from the landowner!
Schedule 6 lists the water rights for Lower Cow Creek – other schedules have rights for the upper creek and tributaries. This is interesting: there are four priorities of rights and this part of the Leggetts’ property has
a 1st and a 2nd priority right. What does that mean exactly? The decree explains that 1st priority rights are domestic – houses and gardens. It’s a very small right and it is not clear whether or how it should be divided up among the all the subdivided parcels that used to be the Leggett ranch. The engineer noted it in the cover letter.
How was the water right calculated for the Williamsons? Using a geographic information system, or GIS, the engineer used his training and years of experience to precisely overlay the Assessor Parcel Map on the decree map. Then he measured the acreage for both, and prorated the water right by area. The following screenshots of the Excel spreadsheet shows these calculations.
Time to fess up: this was a water right subdivision of a fictitious, made-up parcel of land, and the Williamsons don’t actually own it. However, this story is one that happens every day, when a landowner asks “How much is my water right, really? Can I divert for hay, stock, pasture, wildlife habitat, crops not mentioned in the decree, an orchard, ……… ?” Having information before arguing with neighbors, seeing attorneys, sending legal letters, and going to court, can help smart people who generally have good relationships work out happy and agreeable solutions. The Williamsons were smart and talked politely with their neighbors, the Turings and Poulens and Winters’s. Now they have a good basis to live peacefully in their neighborhood for many years, and Arnold can borrow Charlie’s lawnmower until he gets his own.