ContentsPutah and Cache: Clear Lake or Lypoyomi

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Anderson Marsh

Pete Richerson and Scott Richerson

The tour begins at Anderson Marsh. Cache Creek flows out of the lake about a mile and a half northwest of the Anderson ranch house. About three and a half miles downstream, the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District operates a dam, built in 1915, that regulates the outflow so as to store winter runoff in the lake. The dam is a successor to the one built in 1866 by the Clear Lake Water Company to provide power for a mill. The storage of water in Clear Lake provides about 90,000 acre feet of inexpensive irrigation water for Yolo County farms in the average year. With no appreciable snow storage in its watershed, the headwaters streams of the creek rise rapidly after rains and almost as quickly sink back to very low base flows supported by limited groundwater storage. Storage is required to make water available year-round for the original milling operations, or, presently, for summer irrigation.

The Clear Lake Water Company's dam flooded many homes and farms built around the lake in its first year of operation. Complaints to the company went unheeded and the flooding occurred in the second year. The water company thwarted attempts by flood victims at legal relief, but in November 1868, Lower Lake Judge J.B. Southard remarked in dismissing the case that there is such a thing as a higher law! With this encouragement, an armed body of 300 determined but well disciplined citizens led by J. W. Mackall gathered at the mill. They restrained the miller and all the county officers at Lower Lake. After allowing Sheriff Manlove to do his duty by reading the Riot Act, they destroyed the mill and dam. A series of lawsuits by the water company eventually resulted in the county agreeing to pay $20,000 in compensation.

Lake County residents have never been comfortable with California's appropriative water rights doctrine, which gives ownership of water to the first person who can divert it for a useful purpose, not the landowner through whose lands it flows. Thus, its downstream users in Yolo County own Lake County's water. Economically, the doctrine makes sense in a water-short environment. Lake County farmers and city users have no way to use 90,000 acre feet of water from Clear Lake, whereas it can be applied to great effect on the huge expanse of flat fertile farmland in Yolo County. Nevertheless, the doctrine grates on local residents. During the 20th century, Lake County has taken the Yolo Water and Power Company and the Water Conservation District that succeeded it to court on several occasions, resulting in a succession of legal decrees mandating how the lake will be managed.

The issues are nearly the same in every case. Lakeside residents want the lake to remain at a constant level year round, which requires moving captured winter flood flows down Cache Creek as quickly as possible to reduce lakeside flooding; downstream residents want the flood flows stored in Clear Lake to reduce streamside flooding. In dry years, irrigators would like to draw the lake down far below its normal low stand, but low lake levels strand lakeside recreation facilities, a situation unacceptable to lakeside residents. Thus, legal decrees now specify in considerable detail how water is stored and withdrawn from the lake. The Gopcevic Decree (1920) dictates how the lake's rise in winter will be scheduled to leave storage for flood flows. The Bemmerly Decree (1940) prohibited the deepening of the sill at the Grigsby Riffle, near the Highway 53 Bridge, so that large flood flows are less likely to do damage in the Capay Valley and around Woodland. The Solano Decree (1978) regulates the allowable releases from the dam, depending upon water storage. To establish levels, all decrees depend on a gauge installed in 1872 by a pioneer named Rumsey. The staff of the Lake County Flood Control and Water Conservation District plot the lake's level day by day to make sure that Yolo County staff adhere to the letter of the decrees. Yolo County in turn carefully polices water usage in Lake County to prevent any encroachments on their water rights. Lake County cities must purchase Clear Lake water from Yolo County, a fact that peppers local eyes. Right here within our own bioregion, we have in microcosm the water wars endemic to the arid West.

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Upper Cache Creek