Water district dispute threatens McAlpine Lake’s future

Fisherman Freddy Heidler relaxes with his pole in the water as he waits for a bite Saturday morning at McAlpine Lake in this file photo.

The three-year legal dispute between the San Benito County Water District and McAlpine Lake over water pumping rates went to court last week. And if the district succeeds in cutting off the lake’s underground supply, the recreation facility’s owner, Randall McAlpine, says it could force him to close the lake to the public.
The two sides are at odds over the ancient source of artesian spring water that fills the Anzar Road lake, which McAlpine stocks with fish and offers as the backdrop for the fishing and camping destination that’s open to the public.
The water district filed a lawsuit three years ago and wants to charge the facility owner industrial rates as opposed to the agricultural rates McAlpine is willing to pay. The industrial rates are $24.25 per acre-foot, or about five times the cost of ag use.
McAlpine believes he is entitled to the agricultural rate.
“I raise fish and sell ’em by the pound,” he said.
With a dispute ongoing, the district contends McAlpine hasn’t paid extraction fees since July 2009 and that he’s been using three wells on his own since then. McAlpine drilled the wells and has contended the water’s not from district aquifers.
The district lawsuit claims McAlpine denied access to the property between fall of 2012 and fall of 2015 but that he allowed it last year, when district officials gathered meter information and assessed the environment.
The district requested that Judge Harry Tobias grant a preliminary injunction to stop pumping at the lake. Tobias at a May 12 hearing ruled that he would grant the preliminary injunction, but put it on hold until at least June 15 when the two sides are set to meet in a settlement conference. A jury trial is currently on the calendar for July 11.
The water district contends McAlpine owes more than $60,000 in back charges, interest and attorneys’ fees. McAlpine told the Free Lance he recently tried to send the district a $10,000 check but that the district sent it back and while contending the payment included a restrictive legend. McAlpine said that wasn’t the case at all and presented an image of the returned check in court filings.
“They just seem to want to paint me as a bad guy,” McAlpine told the Free Lance after the May 12 hearing.
Water District Manager Jeff Cattaneo, who made arguments in a legal declaration on behalf of the district in favor of recouping the dollar amount, declined to comment when reached this week due to the ongoing litigation.
Ultimately, halting the pumping could have dire repercussions for the business, operating since 1999 when opened by McAlpine and his late wife Melanie, who died Jan. 30.
“I’ll have to close up the lake,” McAlpine said, adding that a drop in lake water levels would affect the habitat adopted by birds and other wildlife.
Historically, McAlpine and the district also have disagreed about domain over the lake’s pristine supply. McAlpine has argued he pumps his lake’s resource from an aquifer that’s well below the district’s groundwater basin, and that he has studies proving his source is free of elements present in all recharged aquifers. The water district resource comes from a combination of local groundwater and water imported by the San Felipe Project, part of the federal Central Valley Project, according to court papers.
“It’s a trapped aquifer,” McAlpine said of his lake’s source. “They disagree with that.”
Still, the lawsuit’s focus is on the charges and type of rate. McAlpine expressed disappointment while claiming that the district recently changed his rate classification from agricultural to industrial, because he allows recreational fishing, and did so behind closed doors without a public hearing. He also criticized how the district has spent tens of thousands of dollars to collect less than $10,000 from him.
“It should’ve been settled a long time ago,” McAlpine said.
Even if the injunction goes through without a settlement agreement next month, a trial could decide the outcome in July. Tobias pointed out in the May 12 hearing how the injunction is just temporary.
“It means you have to make it permanent,” Tobias said.

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