Note: This is part two of a two-part article regarding a pending lawsuit against the El Dorado Irrigation District over water rates. Part one was an update on the lawsuit filed against the district as detailed previously in an article published March 2 “EID sued over water rates.” This article describes the history of EID’s water delivery system and the role that farmers and ranchers have played in the development of water resources in the county.
We all take water for granted but if not for the Gold Rush and later the development of agriculture in El Dorado County, there probably would be no water agencies or water would be vastly more expensive than it is.
Digging miles of ditches and putting in flumes that traversed difficult terrain was prompted by the need for a reliable water supply. Two factors stimulating that need were the weather, which can be unpredictable, and the discovery of gold. Mining, especially hydraulic mining, relied on a steady supply of water.
The first ditch was probably the one built by John Marshall to provide power to the new sawmill in Coloma. Then in 1850-51 the Union Mine Flume was dug. A three-mile long ditch, it carried water from the South Fork of the American River in Coloma to Union (Lotus).
Later other ditches were dug that supplied mining camps east and south of Folsom as well as the rapidly developing vineyards and ranches north of Highway 50. One canal system alone, called the Crawford Ditch, contained 350 miles of ditches and 450 miles of laterals according to the publication, “Historic Mining Ditches of El Dorado County, Calif.”
As mining began to decline in the 1880s after hydraulicking was outlawed and placer and hard rock mining began to peter out, agriculture competed with mining for water from the ditches.
By the early 20th century thousands of acres of crops were in production in the county fed by the mining ditches. But another threat arose when outside utility interests purchased the ditch systems with plans to cut off agriculture and divert the water to a new powerhouse to be built in the South Fork American River canyon below Pollock Pines.
In response, the farmers and ranchers took the fight to the state Railroad Commission, the predecessor to today’s California Public Utilities Commission. They won and the result was the utility company negotiated a contract, the 1919 Agreement, that granted ag and the City of Placerville an annual supply of 15,080 acre-feet of water.
At the same time the area’s farmers and ranchers understood that additional supplies of water were needed. In 1925 they formed the El Dorado Irrigation District.
During this time EID’s ag customers primarily took delivery of water from open, earthen ditches. It was only later that EID converted most of its ag customers from raw-water ditch deliveries to treated water from a piped system to avoid having to create a duel system — one for residential customers and another for ag customers.
The end of the ditch system expanded EID’s water supplies for non-ag uses as well because a piped system is more efficient and conserves water. It also allowed EID to move its ditch water rights to Folsom Reservoir which expanded Folsom supplies to El Dorado Hills by about 50 percent. Without those changes ElD could have lost 4,500 acre-feet of water rights and El Dorado Hills wouldn’t have had enough water to develop.
In the years that followed, EID acquired the 2,000 acre-foot Weber Reservoir and two old ditch systems — one in south county and the other in the Mosquito area. They also envisioned a major new reservoir in Sly Park but found it too expensive to fund.
Fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation came along and built Sly Park Reservoir as part of the Central Valley Project along with a distribution system. But with the building of Sly Park came a water supply contract with the Bureau in which EID guaranteed that five-sixths of Sly Park’s 41,000 acre-feet would be dedicated to agricultural use.
According to Merv de Haas, who worked for the bureau for 27 years and later was the general manager for the county water agency, “The Bureau of Reclamation is not authorized to do a project for domestic or municipal use. You can only serve that kind of water out of an irrigation project as long as it doesn’t adversely impact the purpose of the project for irrigation. That’s the way the law was written.
“The Bureau of Reclamation built the distribution system in the late 1950s and allocated cost based on water use with 12.5 percent for municipal/industrial use and 87.5 percent for irrigation use. There’s no way you could afford to build a duel system. It was decided that ag doesn’t need treated water and so we won’t charge them for using it and put it all in one system. It makes it easier to control the system and spread it further.
“Ag’s contribution is acknowledged in the cost of service study and so they don’t charge for treatment costs. But treatment costs have gone up as the demand for purity kept going up. But it is ag that is basically what carried the building of the project and the distribution system,” he said.
The contract with the bureau was made moot when EID purchased Sly Park in 2003.
As time has gone by, EID has expanded its services to include large swaths of the county. De Haas said at one point EID even took over a water and sewer company in El Dorado Hills because it couldn’t afford to stay in business. EID also took over providing water elsewhere in the county even though it was expensive to do so with homes and communities so spread out.
“It’s a billion dollar system and requires a lot of money to maintain it,” said de Haas. “One of the reasons EID has so much debt now is because they put off replacing and fixing equipment because they didn’t want to raise rates.”
Currently EID has the water rights to 65,000 acre-feet with 40,000 of that due to the efforts of the ag community. Of that amount, ag uses from 21,000 to 35,000 acre-feet of water yearly and contributes 20 percent of water sales.
Why the history of water development in the county matters is because EID is currently the subject of a lawsuit launched by El Dorado Hills resident Darwin Throne who accuses the district of charging residential customers more for water than it costs to produce.
In particular, the lawsuit maintains that by selling water to ag customers at a rate lower than that charged to residential customers, ag customers are being subsidized by residential customers.
Members of the ag community disagree, saying that the history of EID shows that the water agency would not exist without their leadership and it’s not just ag that receives a break, schools, golf courses and other public facilities get a price break as well.
More importantly, ag uses treated water not because it needs it but because it saves EID the cost of having to build and maintain a duel system which would raise rates for everyone. EID also brings in a substantial amount of non-rate revenue from property taxes, hydroelectric generation, recreation and other sources, so all EID customers are being subsidized to some degree.
Those in the ag community also stress the many benefits of having such a strong agricultural presence in the county. One benefit is how ag-related organizations provide employment and learning opportunities for local youths.
Ag is also an income generator for the county. Using the multiplier effect, farmers say Apple Hill and the wineries generate $500 million for the county every year. That’s money spent in the local community with the tax dollars paying for government services.
It’s also ag that provides much of the fresh vegetables and fruits sold at local farmers markets and contributes to the open space and natural beauty that makes El Dorado County such an attractive place to live.
Without the special rates for water, these same farmers say almost all of the local farms would go away with the land likely sold for rooftops.
De Haas and others from the ag community maintain that it’s ag that has protected this area’s water rights, thus ensuring that present and future residents have the water they need regardless if it’s for domestic, industrial or agricultural use.