County and MID come to terms on water rights at Lake McClure
It’s an agreement 50 years in the making.
And after years and years of negotiations, a settlement has finally been reached between Mariposa County and the Merced Irrigation District (MID).
The agreement deals with the water that flows into, and out of, Lake McClure, which is located in Mariposa County. MID is the agency that oversees operations of the reservoir and its power generation.
“Yes,” said Mariposa County Supervisor Kevin Cann when asked if he was satisfied with the agreement.
The case has to do with an agreement that was first signed in 1968 after construction of the reservoir in northern Mariposa County.
Since that time, Mariposa County has received $100,000 a year from MID.
However, as part of that 50-year-old agreement, the only way Mariposa County could have benefited additionally would be to build a separate reservoir — either on or from waters of the Merced River. That river has a “wild and scenic” declaration, making any such construction virtually impossible.
“What does winning look like?” said Cann about the settlement.
Cann said local officials believe they could have probably won a court case, but wondered what that would mean.
“We could win and only win the right to do something we couldn’t do,” said Cann.
MID had argued, that as part of the original agreement, they only needed to pay Mariposa County if there was construction of a water resource project on the South Fork of the Merced River. They also claimed that such development was impossible because of the wild and scenic status of the river.
Mariposa County officials argued that receipt of future payments was not conditioned upon its construction of water resource projects and though difficult, the wild and scenic designation would not prohibit the County from future water resource projects.
Mariposa County Counsel Steve Dahlem said the case never did go to trial, but it has been in negotiations for many years. The agreement does stipulate the County is responsible for all legal fees. Dahlem said he did not have exact dollar amounts about how much it has cost to date, though he did indicate the $100,000 received each year from MID has been used to cover those fees; and possibly more.
Cann said local officials have been in negotiations for years because they knew the original agreement was expiring. After several years, it was in 2013 when MID filed the court action.
Cann said he believes “both sides knew” that a court action was going to have to be filed and it was MID which took the first initiative.
Since then, legal counsel on both sides have been negotiating the settlement, which was signed by Tulare County Superior Court Judge David C. Mathias on Oct. 26.
As part of the settlement, Mariposa County will receive a one-time payment of $1.5 million to be used at the County’s discretion. That payment will likely come in January, said Dahlem, and will probably be part of the mid-year budget discussions in late February or early March.
In addition, the County will likely receive $300,000 a year from the proceeds of MID’s hydroelectric sales. That money can be used for any purpose and will be paid for 30 years. That money could be less should power generation revenues plummet for MID, which is not likely.
Another major point of the settlement has to do with development of water resource projects. Under the agreement, 6 percent of MID’s annual gross hydroelectric generation revenues will go into an escrow account for development of water projects at Lake McClure. The maximum amount deposited in the account is $18 million. Those developments can be on the east or west side of the reservoir.
How quickly those funds will accumulate depends on the amount of electricity generated at the dam on Lake McClure.
However, if this year is any indication, it could accumulate quickly.
According to the MID operating budget, in fiscal year 2018, which ends next June, expected revenues exceed $22 million. That would mean $1.3 million would be placed in the escrow account. Should that pace remain, the $18 million would accumulate much faster than the 30- year agreement.
Whether Mariposa County can develop any water resource projects remains in question. The agreement states that after 30 years, if there is no development, the funds will be split evenly between MID and the County.
The agreement also guarantees up to 8,000 acre-feet of water a year, at no charge, to develop water projects. An acre foot is roughly a depth of one foot of water spread over the size of a football field.
It also guarantees preservation of 30,000 acre-feet per year of the County’s water rights from the South Fork of the Merced River.
It also gives the County the right, for 30 years, to develop water resources projects on Maxwell Creek (4,000 acre-feet per year) and Bean Creek (1,200 acre-feet per year). Any such projects developed would give the County the right to use such water in perpetuity.
The agreement does stipulate that any such water developments can only be used in Mariposa County and not be sent outside of the County.
Cann said the agreement allows Mariposa County to “maintain our existing rights for 30 years.”
And, he said, the County “avoided having to build a reservoir.”
He did point out the agreement does allow the County to pump water out of the existing reservoir.
Though just a concept, Cann said if some type of project could be developed to provide water to the Cathey’s Valley area, it could change the landscape.
“Imagine if you could irrigate the land down there,” said Cann.
Though the process and ultimate agreement, which supersedes the original contract, is complicated, Cann said it does protect the County for the future.
“It provides a valid way that water access can be had for growth and change in Mariposa County without having to build a reservoir,” said Cann, “It is usable water for the future.”
Another issue which always seems to come into any discussion about Lake McClure is the Bagby Recreation Area, which is located in Mariposa County on Highway 49 North between Mariposa and Coulterville.
The boat ramp as well as restroom and camping areas have been a bone of contention for local residents, who say they have been neglected by MID, which is in charge of that area.
Dahlem said those are separate issues and were not part of this settlement on the water rights.
Cann did say those issues are something the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors should be discussing, if it is warranted.
“If there are services they should be providing, we should be talking about that,” said Cann.
Another issue that comes into play is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates hydroelectric rights across America. Currently, the MID is operating under an old FERC agreement and has been in negotiations for a new agreement for several years.
Part of that agreement could include recreational opportunities, something many feel could be an economic boost in Mariposa County.
Though a different matter, Cann said any final agreement could play a role in the economic future of the County.
Information on the process can be found on the ferc.gov website.
Greg Little is Editor of the Mariposa Gazette and can be reached at email@example.com.