Monday, 17 June 2024

Dry conditions highlight lake's complex water rights

LAKE COUNTY – Clear Lake isn't full this year, thanks to drier conditions, and that resulted in an announcement by the county's Water Resources Division Friday that Yolo County's draw on the lake would be significantly reduced for 2007.

That news is part of a complex picture regarding water rights to Clear Lake, which are primarily held by Yolo County.

As previously reported by Lake County News, less rain this year has resulted in Clear Lake not being full for the first time in several years. Water Resources Division Engineer Tom Smythe had estimated that those conditions could result in a reduction by as much as 50 percent of Yolo County's water allocation from the lake.

On Friday it became official when Smythe reported that because the lake wasn't full on May 1, Yolo County will receive only 85,000 acre feet of its maximum 150,000 acre-foot allocation.

Clear Lake's level peaked in March at 6.14 feet Rumsey, and had most recently measured 5.87 feet Rumsey, Smythe reported. Clear Lake if full when it reaches 7.56 feet Rumsey.

Rumsey, according to the Water Resources Division, is a measurement based on the elevation of a rock sill at the confluence of Cache and Seigler creeks, near Lower Lake. It's named for Captain Rumsey, who in 1872 established the low point of the sill as “Zero Rumsey,” which became the basis for all lake measurements.

It's the first time in five years that the lake hasn't been full, Smythe said, which directly affects Yolo County's water draws.

“We've had a lot of really wet years, so they've been getting the full 150,000 acre-foot allocation,” Smythe said.

A court decision called the Solano Decree, first passed in 1978 and modified in 1995, specifies how much water is available to Yolo County, and governs the summer operation of the Clear Lake Dam, which Smythe said was built in 1914. That decree includes the determination that if the lake is full on May 1, Yolo County gets 150,000 acre feet of Clear Lake's water.

If the lake falls below 3.22 feet Rumsey, no water is available to Yolo for release, Smythe said. As many as three feet of water evaporates from Clear Lake's surface during the summer months; that means the lake can drop from three to six and a half feet in any given summer. Smythe said, on average, Clear Lake fluctuates about five and a half feet each year.

Smythe predicted that the lake will drop as low as 1.1 feet Rumsey in November.

Yolo County can only take its seasonal water withdrawal between April 1 and October 31, according to a Water Resources Division explanation of summer lake levels. The withdrawals, which typically peak in July, are limited to certain amount so as not to harm recreation on the lake.

Another court decision, the Gopcevic Decree from 1920, requires certain flood releases between Nov. 1 and March 31, according to the Water Resource Division. That decree prevents Yolo County drawing Clear Lake below zero Rumsey.

To put Yolo County's allocation into perspective, an acre foot is the amount of water that will cover one acre of land one foot deep, or approximately 326,000 gallons. On a full lake year, Yolo is entitled to 48.9 billion gallons. This year they'll get about 27 billion gallons.

To look at it another way, an annual regular allocation for Yolo County roughly equals the reported storage capacity of Lake Pillsbury and Lake Mendocino, combined.

A complex water rights picture

Early in the last century, Yolo County established rights over Clear Lake, a fact that today is a major concern for the county.

A history of the water rights to the lake provided by the Water Resources Division explains that the county never owned Clear Lake's water. Instead, through a complicated series of agreements and court cases, the rights were obtained by Yolo County.

According to the Water Resources Division history, sometime around 1908 a plan was circulated to build a dam on Kelsey Creek to supply water to area farmers, but none were interested. When Yolo County later prepared to build its dam on Cache Creek, they approached the Lake County Board of Supervisors to ask if the county was interested in the water, and were told no.

Yolo Water and Power Co. then “made application for 300,000 inches of water from Cache Creek, naming Clear Lake and all the streams flowing into the lake, this being recorded in the Lake County's Recorder's Office on May 28, 1912,” according to the Water Resources Division.

County negotiates water rights

Over the last several years the county has been in negotiations with Yolo County Flood Control & Water Conservation District to reach a more equitable agreement that would put more control of the lake's water into Lake County's hands.

This past week, the Board of Supervisors discussed a draft memorandum of understanding with Yolo County regarding “mutual support of water supply, water quality and flood control projects.”

Antonio Rossman, an attorney specializing in water law who has worked on Lake County's behalf in the negotiations for the past several years, said Yolo County controls virtually all of the lake's water rights. “We had a relatively minor say in that up until now,” said Rossman.


As to how Yolo won the lake's water rights first, Rossman explained, “Whoever first applied for and puts water to beneficial use gets it, according to state water law.”

However, water law has undergone some change in recent years, Rossman said, with the law now giving Lake County “a much greater say in the governance of this water.”

For both ethical and legal reasons, Rossman said it's prudent for Yolo to recognize Lake County's potential rights to the water and work to find an amicable resolution.

Changes in water law also have led to Yolo's willingness to reconsider the water rights, Rossman said.

Among those changes are public trust doctrines, which prevents exercising water rights in such a way that hurts environmental quality; and the “area of origin” doctrine, which Rossman said is still a “murky area” but is meant to prevent taking water rights away from the area of origin.

Yolo County does sell water back to local agencies for $50 per acre foot, Rossman said, which is substantially lower than other areas of the state. He compared that to the $90 to $100 per-acre-foot price in the Sacramento area, and the $400 to $1,000 per-acre-foot price range in Southern California.

“You probably have the least expensive water in California,” Rossman said.

Supervisor Ed Robey said one of the resolutions he hopes the negotiations yield is a better way of managing releases out of the lake in order to offer better flood control.

The memorandum of understanding the board accepted this week, said Smythe, has no bearing on the Solano Decree and doesn't affect current water allocations.

Yolo adjusts to less water from Clear Lake

Christy Barton, assistant general manager of Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, said the district's two main agricultural water supplies are here in Lake County – Clear Lake and Indian Valley Reservoir.

According to the district's water management plan, it purchased the Clear Lake Water Co. in 1967 using more than $2 million in revenue bonds. The district references its rights covering “storage of water in Clear Lake and its release for irrigation and other beneficial uses” that date back to Yolo County original 1912 application for water from Cache Creek and Clear Lake.

In 1976 the district completed Indian Valley Dam and Reservoir, using $8.7 million in bonds and an additional more than $6 million in government grants and loans, according to the water management plan. The state issued to the district water rights permits for storage and diversion of water from the North Fork of Cache Creek and Cache Creek for “irrigation, flood control, power generation, recreation, and domestic purposes.”

Yolo farmers use the water principally to grow tomatoes, but also for farming corn, alfalfa and small specialty crops, Barton reported.

Although the district has held meetings with farmers to notify them of less water from Clear Lake, Barton said they don't anticipate having less water available overall, or having to leave crops unplanted. That's because the district has Indian Valley Reservoir as its backup water source, Barton added.

She said the district also is running a “tighter ship,” meaning that if one farmer doesn't use his alloted water, it gets passed on to another.

The reservoir, when full, has a 300,000 acre foot capacity, said Barton, which the district could “theoretically” draw down as far as a 4,000 acre feet conservation pool to protect fish. Barton added that it's unlikely the reservoir would ever be drawn down that far.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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