Canal lining project pits farmer against farmer

The Associated Press
Wednesday October 18, 2000

VISALIA — About 30 protesters hoisted signs and chanted slogans in a successful bid to temporarily stop crews from cutting down hundreds of mature oak trees along a bucolic central California irrigation canal. 

The group blockaded a construction site and prevented crews from unloading their equipment. 

“You’re talking about little old gray-haired ladies and the most conservative, law-abiding farmers,” said Richard Garcia, a local Sierra Club member who helped organize last week’s nonviolent protest. “We’re not a bunch of radicals out here, but we stood up for our rights.” 

It was the latest skirmish in a 2-year-old battle over the Tulare Irrigation District’s attempt to line a 10-mile stretch of an earthen canal with cement. The project, which would destroy more than 200 mature oak trees, is intended to prevent Millerton Lake water worth about $400,000 a year from seeping into the ground on its way to fields in the southern part of Tulare County. 

It’s a battle environmentalists and farmers groups are watching closely, because its outcome could have long-lasting impacts on water rights claims all over the state. 

Landowners along the canal, joined by the Sierra Club, argue that if water is prevented from seeping into the ground and recharging the underground aquifer, the area’s water table ultimately will drop by at least 12 feet and possibly by as much as 40 feet. 

The water loss will destroy most vegetation along the canal, spoiling its tranquil river-like character, and will force farmers who live along its banks to find other sources of water for their orchards and fields, the project’s opponents say. 










The landowners who live along the waterway, many of them farmers, and the farmers who live in the irrigation district downstream all claim they have a right to the water that flows through the canal from the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. 

“This canal was constructed back in the 1870s and all of the water that comes from the canal the district has a right to,” TID manager Gerald Hill said. The farmers in the district pay for that water and the landowners along the canal’s banks don’t, Hill said. 

To assert its rights, the district sued Thomas Mitts and his wife, who draw water directly out of the ditch to irrigate some walnut trees on their property. Mitts has also spearheaded an effort by landowners to stop the irrigation district from pouring cement into the canal, fighting the district’s ultimately successful environmental review processes at every stage. 

“It is a natural, historic waterway and there’s a natural spring that flows through the area. Plus, I have a contractual right to the water that they themselves signed off on back in 1892,” Mitts said. Hill argues those contract rights lapsed from earlier disuse. 

The Mitts’ claim, and that of 22 other landowners along the canal who filed a separate lawsuit against the district, rests on two main points. First, they allege the district has not completed eminent domain proceedings and so has no legal right to build its canal on other people’s property, where they have been operating with easements for up to 120 years. Second, they argue the canal is actually a series of creeks and sloughs connected by stretches of ditch, and so the people who live along its banks have a right to the water. 

A day after last week’s protest, a Tulare County judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the district from lining the canal for now. The Mitts case is expected to go to trial sometime next January, and a trial date for the other landowners’ suit has yet to be announced. 

“We’ve got all the permits ... we’ve passed environmental muster. What is out there now is just the adjacent neighbor issue,” Hill said. 

Still, environmentalists warn that if the canal water is prevented from seeping into the local aquifer, the area’s natural beauty will be lost. 

“We feel this is a precedent-setting move,” said the Sierra Club’s Garcia. “If they are allowed to proceed with this cement-lining project, it’s possible other irrigation districts might do it, too. We fear that they will proceed to cement them all until every drop of water goes down to Tulare.”