A History of Railroad Commission and Water Rights
Excerpts from the Minutes of Oroville-Wyandotte Irrigation District
The following article provides historical information regarding water rights, rights to service and the special access to water that some parcels may utilize. South Feather Water and Power Agency (SFWP) may only provide water (domestic or irrigation) if the parcel in question is within our State Water Resources Control Board boundaries and is designated as an original, annexed or Railroad Commission (irrigation only) parcel.
In 1918, there were two water companies in the area which were regulated by the RRC (Railroad Commission), the Palermo Land and Water Co. and the South Feather Land and Water Co. They derived their water supply from different sources, but most of it was from water rights acquired during the mining days. They were not pure utilities, but were primarily land developers. Most often the agreement for the sale of land would include a provision that obligated the Company to provide water. Some interested people got together and formed the Oroville-Wyandotte Irrigation District by acquiring the rights of those two private utilities. They did this by applying to the RRC, which authorized the sale of those utilities to the District.
At the time of those sales [of the utilities to the District], there was opposition expressed to the taxes that accompanied District membership. The District boundaries were drawn to exclude most of the properties that were receiving service from the two private utilities. The property owners had the option at the time to stay out or come into the District.
When the RRC authorized the sale of the two private utilities to OWID, there were two obligations which the District voluntarily undertook; current water users were entitled to one miners inch (MI) for every four acres of land, and to receive service at the same rate as charged for in-district agricultural customers. The quantities of water specified, 1 MI continuous per 4 acres, was reserved for those customers, even if they weren’t taking water at the time. They had a ten year window to develop their acreage and start using water. This was from 1922 to 1932.
In theory, if an outside user was served during the 10 year window, and then didn’t use it for years, they could come back and say they wanted water, and the District would have to serve them.
There was a great deal of litigation which arose immediately after formation of the OWID. In the early days, because of the huge bond indebtedness of the District, there were attempts to charge outside users for capital improvements within District boundaries, differing water rates, or standby charges. The courts overturned these charges. There is, however, no prohibition against charging what it costs to provide the service, only that they can’t pay more than district members.
It is important to differentiate what kinds of rights are held. Any customer of OWID, inside or outside the District, has a “right to service,” not a “water right”. They didn’t have a water right when they were serviced by South Feather [Land and Water Company] or Palermo [Land and Water Company], nor the District. They have a right to service only. These customers can’t sell or transfer their water to someone else, or serve it to other parcels. When property is divided, the water goes with the property. A “water right” is a proprietary interest in the actual water, and is only granted by the State Water Resources Control Board. The District has a water right, not its customers.
The Railroad Commission decision was not a water rights decision. It was a decision that said that the District must treat those customers the same way it would treat customers within the District, not discriminate or refuse to provide them service because they are outside users.
The documents listed below provide additional information to landowners who may wish to research if their property may have rights to service under the Railroad Commission ruling. SFWP has provided a current boundary map which includes service boundaries and parcel classifications. The two additional documents provide historical information including a 1992 list of Railroad Commission parcels and a 1920 list of landowner names.