What’s a California Watermaster Doing in Oregon?

I picked up the phone, and the caller said, “There might be some trouble.  I got a call from the Oregon Watermaster, and he says a State of California employee cannot work in Oregon.  Well, what do we do now?”

California was the Watermaster for the North Fork of the Pit River as far back as the early 1930’s, until 2007 when Modoc County took it over.  The Watermaster up there, Mike, was doing a great job back in 2006, and in fact holding down two huge areas.  WaterNew_Pine_Dec1stpg_1925 - Editedmaster authority was pretty clear, except that the lower part of New Pine Creek crossed from California into Oregon.  Back in 1925 and 1932, when the lawsuits happened, the Superior Court Judge in Modoc County issued two decrees covering all the irrigated lands, even those in Oregon.

New_Pine_Dec1stpg_1932 - EditedCalifornia Watermasters had been working in both states for decades without any questions.  Now, all of a sudden, the Oregon Watermaster said our employees can’t work in their state unless we have some interstate agreement.

Documents could not be found in the offices in Oregon, or in our office in Red Bluff.  Probably there was such a document, and as boxes of reports, letters, and investigations piled up out into the hallways over the years, the box with THAT particulaNew_Pine_Cal-Orer piece of paper was thrown away.  Back to Mike’s question:  so now what do we do?  Like all good supervisors are supposed to do, I turned the question back to Mike.  “Wow, this could really be a big headache.  What do you think we should do right way?”  Mike suggested, “Lemme see if just he and I can sit down and talk about it.  I’ll let you know what comes out of that, and we’ll see if we have to get attorneys, management, the Director, and who knows who else involved.”  I thought Mike was pretty smart, like all the Watermasters are, so I said that was a great idea.


A week later, Mike called back.  “Hey, I met with John, he’s a real nice guy.  I explained what our watermaster service is, how we’re always making some people a little mad, and a few people a lot mad while keeping diversions legal.  I told him how one time up there on New Pine Creek, a diverter came out on his porch after I turned down his diversion to his water right amount, and I was over talking to his neighbor when he fired 3 rifle shots in the air.  We talked about the early morning and late evening hours, and then I asked, what do you think we should do?  He thought about it and said, why don’t we keep the status quo?  If management got worried, then they could make a decision, but everything seems to be working real well.  I agreed, and that’s where we left it.”  “Mike, you’re a genius again, well done.  I’ll write a short email for the files and we’ll leave it at that.”

To this day, the California Watermaster works just a very short way into Oregon…and it serves the diverters very well.

Why Should I Measure Flows If My Neighbors Don’t?

Why should I measure my surface water diversions if others on the same stream do not?


Installation of a device costs time and money, maybe thousands of dollars and a few days plus the use of a loader.  Sometimes the unspoken question is, if I am getting more than my water right, why should I hold myself to just diverting what is legally mine?  None of the readers of this blog would ask that, but some others out there might.

This is something like the question, why should I drive the speed limit if some or most oCHP_resizedf the other drivers are speeding?  We have all seen the answer – speeders eventually get pulled over by police or highway patrol, while those who stay close to the speed limit generally get left alone.  I’ll bet that you’re like me- I am a lot more relaxed after driving within the limits, then if I put the pedal to the metal and get somewhere an hour earlier.

50 years ago, many diversions were in the middle of nowhere and the only way there was past a protective landowner or manager.  Now roads have pushed out to the middle of nowhere and so have Google Earth, recent aerial mapping, government regulations, and government employees.


In the world of water diversions, the water district, ditch tender, watermaster, or Water Board folks know who is complying with the law and who is not.  The one who has a measurement device and stays within his water rights tends to get left alone.  On the other hand, the law-abiding diverter gets listened to more when he or she complains that he’s not getting the water he should.winning-trophy

Social influence – peer pressure – also come into play after the first person on a stream installs and starts using a measurement device.  The fact that a neighbor invested and did the right thing to comply with water laws encourages other diverters to do the same.  Or at least, the water right holders who don’t have a weir or meter can see that it is inevitable and they’ll be more readily convinced to do the same.

Sometimes a diverter is not getting thesunflower full water right, even though he thinks he is.  In this case, being able to measure the water means being able to demonstrate that when the diversion is increased, it is still within the legal amount. I have seen this happen a few times, and the result is a rancher or farmer who is a whole lot happier than he or she was last week!