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Advocate: Watch your water rights
Nonprofit founder warns ‘beneficial use,’ other terms could be redefined

Tim Hearden, Capital Press 12/24/08

An escalating competition for California's limited water supply could cause a redefinition of water rights and a host of lawsuits, a private property rights advocate contends.

The outcomes from such environmental initiatives as Delta Vision, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and others could also increase pressure to send more Northern California water south, asserts Susan Sutton, of Maxwell, who helped found a nonprofit organization that assists families with water rights issues.

In a newsletter essay last week, Sutton zeroed in on statements in a recent primer by the Legislative Analyst's Office that the "reasonable use" requirement under the state's water rights system should be updated to reflect the scarcity of resources.

"It is in the interest of the state to undertake a concerted effort to realign the water rights system to better reflect modern needs and circumstances," reads the primer, published in October. "For example, this could be done by accounting for the potential for water conservation and water use efficiency in managing water rights."

Sutton argues that if the legislature were to try to redefine "beneficial use," its definition might well favor urban areas to the detriment of agriculture and other rural rights holders, particularly in the north.

"I think the net-net is it's all going to end up in the courts," Sutton said in an interview. "It's all going to end up in lawsuits.

"We want to do our part" to conserve water and protect fish, she said. "But we also want to do what we can do to protect our water rights."

Before retiring and starting her own firm, SAS Strategies and Perspectives, Sutton was a founding member and grant-writer for the Family Water Alliance, which works to preserve agriculture and property rights.

Her observations come as a debate is emerging in California over the implementation of water rights. Earlier this month, landowners in Siskiyou County accused the state Department of Fish and Game of imposing new restrictions on water rights as part of a watershed-wide permitting program aimed at protecting threatened Coho salmon.

Sutton said that some 80 percent of water diversions in the north state are screened, so "we're doing our best" to protect the imperiled fish. If beneficial uses are redefined, she said, the new definition could conceivably rule out any number of uses - perhaps even water for swimming pools.

"Maybe there are certain crops that have maybe a perception of not being a beneficial use," she said.

Sutton urged people to maintain communication with their local water districts and stay informed of the issues. She suggested that the Endangered Species Act could be amended to take into consideration public health and safety, although she acknowledged such a revision is unlikely right now.

"It might open up the ability to move water a little freer," she said. "Right now the Supreme Court has made the determination that we are going to protect species at any cost. ... It won't make a difference if 25 million people in Southern California are without water."

Sutton also called for more water storage in California, and said perhaps fish populations could be increased through planting.

"I think there's a whole bunch of viable options out there if the people of California are willing to accept them," she said.

Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: thearden@capitalpress.com.
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