WORSE THAN OWENS RIVER: THE NORTH FORK STONY CREEK STORY
by Michael Barkley, (c) 2001
I am a recently vested heir to some 3,750 acres of land on North Fork Stony Creek near the Newville town site in Glenn and Tehama County, land that came to me as an undivided interest with my 3 siblings and a cousin, from F. P. Masterson named as a defendant in the case United States v. H.C. Angle, et al., Equity No. 30 (now CIV S-80-583-LKK), currently administered by the United States District Court, Eastern District in Sacramento.
In that case, on May 28, 1918 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation brought suit against a handful of riparians on Stony Creek upstream of Black Butte to stop them from diverting from the creek water that their client agency, the Orland Unit Water Users Association, felt was theirs having been stored in Reclamation reservoirs upstream during winter flows for their use later in the season. But the real reason was that Reclamation had used erroneous rainfall statistics for their first Orland reservoir, and then oversold the Orland Project in good years. When shortages developed they sought a succession of increased storages and stream appropriations in bad years to cover up their mistakes, and in a fit of greed expanded their litigation to strip water rights from all persons possibly having a claim to Stony Creek water. Over the next 12 years Reclamation reduced all possible claims through aggressive litigatory tactics until only a handful of upstream users remained, and only those users who could prove what they'd appropriated and used were allowed any further usage under the Decree. Many defendants, cowed by Reclamation's aggression walked away from their rightful claims. Others, even after their rights were acknowledged, walked away from their entitlements rather than pay the punitive water master fees (backed up with contempt of court citations, arrest, and imprisonment) levied during the Depression. Buried within the Decree is the end result of an incredibly slick and ruthless bit of Federal lawyerly mischief: the Decree stripped every upstream riparian of all riparian rights, rights still enjoyed by pioneering Californians on every other watershed but this one, and it recognized only actual appropriations.
For plaintiff's irrigation district clients, proving their appropriation and use was no problem since they were the plaintiffs and arms-length records were available - for the rest of us proof was a very tough task. Still, many upstream users were aided in their proofs by a 1911 report from a Reclamation survey team that made a record of all upstream diversion facilities, including blueprints of diversion and conveyance systems. All, that is, except any on North Fork, where no such survey was made.
For North Fork, Reclamation's heavy handed actions were a death sentence, effectively stripping lands upstream of Black Butte of water they'd enjoyed for 80 - 90 years. These upstream lands were settled in the late 1840s because of good arable land, plus year-round water especially at water gaps like Newville and Bedford Creek on the North Fork. At one time the town of Newville was the largest town in Colusi County (later split to form Tehama, Colusa and Glenn). The Angle Decree led to a 70 or 80 year period of oppression for this upstream region with dwindling population, economic hardship, and the death of the town of Newville.
Overall the irrigable acreage upstream exceeds the size of the Orland Project, but the Decree limited irrigation water upstream of Black Butte to 11,967.30 acre-feet (or 13,073.30 a-f?), delivering by fiat some 100,000 to 150,000 acre-feet to the Orland Project, and the balance to Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District or to flow to the Sacramento River to be picked up by other appropriators without the arbitrary and punitive limits imposed on us.
North Fork was hit hardest, though never a part of the conveyance system that Reclamation originally tried to protect, With thousands of irrigable acres, and a highly seasonal stream flow of up to 56,100 acre-feet, North Fork riparians were limited by the Decree to exactly 130.5 acre-feet of water, to be applied to 3 specific parcels. Although there is a potential small project dam site on North Fork's Salt Creek tributary at Conklin Ranch which could be supplemented by flume from Thomes Creek, all but two of the Fork's riparians were stripped of their water rights by the Decree, and threats of arrest and water cutoffs had a very real chilling effect on any development efforts. The Salt Creek dam site is seismically questionable and would have required condemning a neighbor's (or relative's) land, a tough prospect for a district as small as a Newville Irrigation District would be. Newville is now gone. Subsequently U.S Army Corps of Engineers was able to take for Black Butte Dam our best North Fork bottom land for pennies on the dollar compared to what it would have been worth irrigated. If Reclamation had treated us with the same generosity it treated Orland, Newville and North Fork would still be alive, well-populated, and economically healthy.
This oppression continues today with little water available even though, after the Angle Decree, there is enough water for users downstream of Black Butte to do anything they might wish. For those of us on North Fork, every year an average of 23,000 acre-feet of water flows through our lands, water we are forbidden to touch. Every request we make for an appropriation is fought tooth & nail by Orland. While watching downstream users enjoy their abundance, we are reduced to using a maximum of somewhere below 70 acre-feet, plus a few expensively-regulated stock ponds, and a few low-flow water wells and springs. For the rest of the upstream areas, in any given year, half or less of the 12,000 (or 13,000?) allotted acre-feet is used upstream, with the rest going to Reclamation's clients as an unearned dividend of their aggression, or to subsequent appropriators, but none of it is returned to those of us from whom it was stolen.
The last major group protest, against proposed appropriations by Reclamation of Black Butte surpluses, drew an angry letter to the Court that the presence of upstream stock ponds meant riparians were stealing Reclamation's water, and demanded actions including arrest. After that the protest group disappeared. It again emphasized Reclamation's position that downstream swimming pools were more important than our farms and ranches. Reclamation's position is all the more outrageous since many multiples of alternate sources have been located since the decree: 1) Tehama-Colusa Canal can yield to Orland many times the water stolen from upstream users, a supply recognized in a November 12, 1906 Reclamation Service report on file in the Angle case files (and reproduced at "Bureau of Reclamation Project Feasibilities and Authorizations, 1957 Edition", p. 682):. 2) Water awarded Reclamation from Black Butte Dam was more than enough to satisfy the area-of-origin/beneficial use needs of the upstream users, 3) discovery of the 6,700,000 acre-foot Stony Creek Fan underflow under Orland meant that Orland already had hundreds of times more water than it needed at the time Reclamation took our water from us and approval of 42 wells to tap the Fan in 1977 meant they could tap the supply any time they wished.
Faced with the responsibility of informing the Court of these alternative and fully available supplies, instead of doing the right thing, instead of doing "equity" in this Federal Equity litigation, Reclamation has avoided its duties and persevered in its continuous punitive efforts to starve out the upstream Stony Creek riparians. Sanctions against Reclamation are certainly in order, as is setting aside the Decree and dismissing the Angle case.
Return to Stony Creek Water Wars.