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Dam fees drain subconservancy

by Karen Dustman

When the Carson Water Subconservancy purchased the Lost Lakes water rights in 2001, they hoped to remain good stewards of its 219-acre-feet for decades to come. But that was before cash-strapped California quadrupled its dam safety inspection fees.

Ed James, Subconservancy General Manager shared that bad news at a community meeting in Alpine County last month. Over a four-year period, California’s mandatory dam inspection fees have jumped from $1,192 in 2003 to over $5,000 for the pair of small dams at Lost Lakes. And that’s a heavy hit for a government group like the Subconservancy.

“We spent $330,000 to acquire the water rights, and have already spent another $116,000 since we’ve owned them,” noted James. And while that total has included costs to correct the license and perform work on the dams, rising inspection fees are becoming increasingly difficult for the Subconservancy to support.



The Subconservancy uses its Lost Lakes water to benefit the Carson River Watershed, keeping the water in the lakes for recreational purposes during the summer, and releasing it from the dams in the late fall each year. This release helps to maintain flow in the West Fork of the Carson River when natural runoff is at its lowest. That benefits not only fish and wildlife but fishermen and recreational users of the river as well.

The annual Lost Lakes water release is “essential to the West Fork of the Carson River,” said Judy Wickwire, a member of Friends of Hope Valley and Alpine Watershed Group. “Without it, we’ll be in a lot of trouble here in Alpine County, both economically and restoration-wise.”



But at present, California does not offer a reduced fee for environmental dam operators.

“Unfortunately, we don’t qualify for the farming and small business entity exemptions,” observed James. “These state inspection fees help fund lots of programs, but they’re programs that we don’t use.”

So, how can the Subconservancy cope? Options presented at the recent community meeting included transferring all or a portion of the Lost Lakes water rights to downstream operators, or selling the water rights to another agency like California Fish & Wildlife. While such transfers would save costs for the Subconservancy, they would also halt the current benefit to the waters of the West Fork.

For community members at Wednesday’s meeting, however, it was the possibility of a legislative solution that sounded most promising. If the California legislature could be persuaded to lower inspection fees for dams which provide environmental benefits, the Subconservancy could continue to fund the Lost Lakes dam operation – and its fall addition to the West Fork waters of the Carson. Both the Subconservancy’s Board and the Alpine County Board of Supervisors may be asked to weigh in soon. And after that, the rest of the story would be up to California lawmakers.

Will Lost Lakes’ water keep flowing, or will rising fees be too much to swallow? Stay tuned.