Lifetime for water: Cienega Valley master

Howard Harris points out a water flow meter that measures the rate of water being pumped.

Hollister water was noted for its bad taste and hard chemicals
more than 100 years ago, but then during the late 1890s, residents
discovered water from the Grass Valley was noticeably soft and
tasted better then the city’s water.
Hollister water was noted for its bad taste and hard chemicals more than 100 years ago, but then during the late 1890s, residents discovered water from the Grass Valley was noticeably soft and tasted better then the city’s water.

For almost 100 years farmers fought over the water rights with the city of Hollister, but it wasn’t until 1958 that things began to heat up between the landowners and the city.

Everything came to a boil in 1986 after 28 years of feuding, landowners decided to fight city hall, and won.

The water was so much better that people traveled to the valley on a Sunday afternoon to have a picnic, bringing extra jugs, canteens and other containers to fill with water.

Because of its reputation, a feasibility study was commissioned to see if the city could bring the water to Hollister. The study showed water diverted from Pescadero Creek at its junction with Harlen Creek could flow by gravity.

In 1895, the city filed a water right on the water of Pescadero Creek, and on Harlan Creek in 1896, but the landowners placed a condition limiting the amount of water to be pumped by the city, not to go lower than the tunnel under Cienega Road.

“The city of Hollister believed they were entitled to pump a million gallons of water from the valley,” said Howard Harris, one of the organizers who spearheaded the lawsuit.

And after 12 years as the unpaid, appointed watermaster for the Cienega Water Users, Harris retired last year.

The city had 10 wells and the water would flow out of the tunnel under Cienega Road through the mountain and settle into a pond about a quarter mile down the road. The water then flowed by gravity to Hollister, which the farmers liked because the city was lowering the water table.

“It was too wet to farm,” Harris said. “The water was four feet to the surface. It was a swamp out there.”

The city, using a diesel plant, transported water, and with a man living near the pump station, he would turn the water on whenever it was needed then pumped it to the bottom of the hill on Cowden Road off Hospital Road up to the Sally Flat Reservoir.

“The city wanted to keep the reservoir full,” Harris said. “But no one kept an eye on the overflow pipe in the Cowden Lake.”

Farmers who signed the agreement should have stopped pumping long ago, but Harris figured they were all dead.

“The agreements were signed prior to 1928 and not made public,” he said. “Nobody knew to shut off the pumps – 200,000 gallons of water was wasting away and to maintain water rights it must be put to beneficial use.”

Harris found recordings dating back to 1875 and with the help of his wife, Bess, they searched the archives of both Monterey and San Benito counties.

“I had to because at one time they were one,” Harris said.

Another stumbling block Harris came across were that records seemed somewhat dubious when recorded in the “old” days.

“Water rights back then were recorded by posting a notice at the place of origin with a duplicate at the county office,” said Harris. “Sometimes they did (post them), sometimes they didn’t.”

When farmers filed the suit to stop the city from taking their water, the city hired attorney Adolph Moskovitz, a water expert.

“Moskovitz toured the area then gave me a proposition and we drew up the agreement, which we finalized in court,” Harris said. “They set the maximum allotment for each owner. It was agreed that the city would not pump more than 500,000 gallons per day.”

Because of the lawsuit against the city and under court orders. both the city of Hollister and the Cienega Water Users Committee must select a watermaster every five years to assure Cienega area landowners of their water rights.

With his health declining, Harris, 91, could no longer do the job. He suffers from bone cancer, has had four heart attacks, a stroke, a broken hip and nearly went blind.

Upon his retirement, the landowners nominated Patrick Wirz who was approved by the court. Harris represented the Cienega Water Users, as legal advisor, geologist, hydrologist and researcher in the lawsuit.

However, according to court records, the city does not show a current watermaster, which City Manager George Lewis said it was probably an oversight because of the restructuring of city positions.

Daniel O’Hanlon of the law firm of Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemannn and Girard, counsel of record for the city, sent a letter to Public Works engineer, Clint Quilter stating the last watermaster on record was John White, approved by the court in 1989.

But according to the city’s staff report attached to the Sept. 21, 2001 agenda, then utility supervisor David Perales served in that capacity since 1989 until he left the city last winter.

Lewis was not sure if the watermaster position was filled after Perales’s departure.

“I don’t believe that has been done at this point,” he said.

Unsure when White “departed” from his role as watermaster, Perales said he served as the city’s watermaster since White’s departure in 1989.

“I’m not sure if a formal appointment was made,” he said.

Watermasters inspect the lands, water diversion works, water uses, water meters, water records and other water-related facilities and activities pertaining to the Cienega Valley.

A third watermaster was also included in the judgment to be the tie-breaker in case of a dispute. Harris nominated San Benito County Water District John Gregg for the appointment, which was approved by the court.

However, over the years, Pearles said using a third watermaster has proven not to be necessary. The job is to measure flows at certain locations and portioning water during periods of water shortages among those named in the settlement.

“It is a high quality water with very low salt levels in the lower part of the valley,” Gregg said.

Josh Jensen of Calera Winery was not part of the lawsuit, but realized years later he should have joined to keep an eye on what was going on.

“Technically I’m an outsider in the issue,” he said.

Jensen’s property is one mile north of the Grass Valley aquifer, which is not connected hydrologically.

“We are out of the sphere,” he said. “They have water coming out of their ears. Up here we are really dry.”

Jensen said the water in the valley is pure and high quality and good enough to process sewage.

“It was an important part of the mix for the water supplies in this area,” Jensen said. “Harris got them (farmers) going, saying the city was taking all the water so the court limited the amount of water to a fraction of what they had taken out.”

Filing water rights along the San Benito River and its tributaries is a responsibility, and what people don’t recognize is is a water right away on a stream gives them water from the tributaries.

“Otherwise if the tributaries are dried up there would be no stream,” he said.

One observation about the 14 mile pipeline, said Sunnyslope County Water District Manager Brian Yamkota, is that almost every winter when it rains the pipeline washes out because of the landslides.

“The city has had a lot of problems with that,” he said.

Perales said the city has been making constant repairs since 1982. During the El Nino season, the antiquated pipeline washed out, costing the city $50,000 to repair it.

In 1985 the city received a water report from Bissel and Karn, recommending that the city dump the project because it was not cost effective. And, the Cienega water would only represent 5 to 10 percent of the city’s use.

“It won’t be worth spending $1 million on,” said Harris.

Perales agreed it would cost more than $1.5 million to bring the structure up to date. The city’s pipeline serves the Southside Labor Camp, the County complex and Southside Nursing home.

At one time a channel in the creek was excavated to relieve the groundwater in valley above the twins bridges, but in the mid-1990s major flood created enormous amounts of sediment that were transported down the creek in the channel previous excavated to drain the groundwater.

“The draining pattern was changed,” Gregg said. “Some work was done to restore the creek channel, but the condition prior to the events have not been restored.”

Jensen said the pipeline has come back as an issue because officials won’t pay to repair the pipeline.

“They let it fall apart,” he said.

Another issue at stake is the water rights because if a city or any other holder of water rights does not exercise its water rights within a five-year period, the claim is no longer valid.

“You lose them,” Harris said.

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