Rio Dry

A fight over an old pipeline and water woes grip Rio Dell as a rebranding effort takes hold



Josh and Jaime Gay have begun keeping buckets in their shower. The initial runoff as the water heats up is collected and then lugged next door so their neighbor can water her vegetable garden. It's the least they can do for a neighbor, Jaime says. The Gays, who have five children and a growing small business, say Rio Dell's new restrictions limiting water use to 50 gallons per family member per day haven't been a problem so far.

"Everybody needs to pull together and support the greater good of the community," Jaime says. "When you gotta pinch pennies, you gotta pinch pennies."

The restrictions are a response to a recent state mandate curtailing diversion from the Eel River, the city's sole source of water, and they're just the latest twist in a series of confrontations between the city government, landowners, business owners and citizens as both the water supply and city coffers dwindle. Raising water rates was a key component of the city's proposed 2014-2015 budget, which specified the hike as a necessity in order to keep the Water Debt Fund financially solvent. City officials are discussing how to address a budget deficit of close to 14 percent while potentially restoring what they consider to be important civil servant positions in the public works and police departments. Layoffs in these departments began two fiscal years ago. In his recommendations to the city council, outgoing City Manager Jim Stretch described the city as having a "long-term funding issue" and as being at a "community service crossroads."

On June 17 city council chambers were packed to standing room only after the volunteer fire department received word that the city would begin charging for the department's water use. Chief Shane Wilson called foul, accused the city of a long-standing animosity against the fire department, and asked for Stretch's resignation. His words were met with a round of applause from the audience, who shouted over Mayor Jack Thompson's calls for order. The city council voted 4-1 in favor of not charging the fire department. The fire department, for its part, will modify its traditional fireman's games at this year's Wildwood Days to conserve water. Rival companies will compete to assemble ladders and take part in other dry events, rather than spray one another with the fire hoses.

Even before the latest restrictions, which include a halt to landscape irrigation, flushing sewer systems and cleaning city streets, ordinary residents were feeling the pinch of high rates.

Cindy Lauritzen and her fiance, Janine Martin, both Rio Dell residents of three years, pay $120 a month in water and wastewater fees.

"And that's just the base pay," she adds. "It's outrageous."

On July 15, the city council meeting once again devolved into shouting and calls for order during a discussion of water use restrictions and penalties for overuse. The penalties, meant to buffer the city against state-imposed fines, could be as high as quadruple a utility user's normal bill. An audience member accused Stretch of "chuckling" as he described how residents would have to cut their use by 50 percent. A city councilmember told the audience not to "shoot the messenger." And a controversy which many thought had gone dormant, over a high-maintenance water line, a group of wary landowners and a distant piece of city property with an active spring, burbled back to life.

To call Old Ranch Road a road requires a particular type of rural gumption. It is pitted, bumpy and narrow, an old logging road built into the side of a hill that has been sliding gradually but thoroughly into the embrace of the Eel River for the last 50 years. Usually, Elizabeth Johnson rides her horse or ATV, but today we're in her large four-wheel-drive truck, with scotch broom and pampas grass brushing against the cab as we inch along. When we reach a place wide enough for her to turn around, we stop and climb out. Johnson cautions us to look out for poison oak.

"The only thing the city has ever been told is they can't remove gates," says Johnson. The gates she's referring to block access from Monument Road, a steep and winding stretch of county road that connects Rio Dell to the remote Bear River region. Johnson is one of several rural landowners involved in a tense negotiation with the city over access to Old Ranch Road. The city council claims that the landowners have denied access and hindered the ability of Public Works to maintain the road and a water line that runs alongside it. The landowners allege that the city is blackmailing them into unrestricted access to a landlocked parcel of city property. The property in question contains a small spring and a few thousand dollars worth of timber. The spring isn't big enough to solve Rio Dell's water woes and the timber isn't worth enough to bridge the gap in the city's budget, but the land and how to access it is evidently worthy of a long and heated fight.

The first letter from the city came in November 2013.

"They said it was time to repair the water line, and we were glad," says Johnson. Her family bought the land in 1999. Her father, John Coleman, is a well-known physician's assistant in Fortuna who often dresses up as Santa Claus during the holidays. Most of Old Ranch Road is on what is collectively called "the Coleman property," although it's split between Johnson, her father and her sister. (Humboldt Redwood Company also owns a parcel.) A hodge-podge of black plastic tubing runs along the length of the road, patched in some places, draped over trees in others, occasionally held in place with pieces of rope. Water is pumped from the city's tanks, three miles away, to a holding tank and into the Old Ranch Road line. The line serves about seven of the Colemans' neighbors. Johnson says the exposed line is vulnerable to being damaged by her horses or by bears, and admits that a previous "bad neighbor" once cut the line.

The "proposed improvements to the water line" mentioned in the initial letter were well received. At places the line dwindles to a pipe one inch in diameter, and there have been problems with leaks and inadequate water flow. The cost to the landowners to put in a more permanent line was estimated at $10,000. They agreed to the cost and even offered to pitch in and help with some of the manual labor.

If the idea of asking residents to pony up to repair city property is surprising, well, Old Ranch Road isn't technically in the city's jurisdiction. The parcels in question are an unincorporated area split between Humboldt County's 1st and 2nd supervisorial districts. At one time, the area was within the city's "sphere of influence" but the official borders of this sphere shrunk four years ago. A 1979 agreement between the original owners of the property, Raymond and Annette Haberstock, grants a non-exclusive easement to the city "for the purpose of repairing, replacing, and maintaining water lines and water systems." As part of the Haberstock agreement, the landowners installed a system that ran up the steep hill above Old Ranch Road from the city's water meters. This lateral line was to be privately maintained. When the Haberstock property was subdivided, the buyers inherited the lines, the agreement with the city and a rate of payment one and a half times that of residents' within the city limits.

"I never would have bought the property if we thought we wouldn't have water," says Jennifer Mackey, one of the landowners served by those lateral lines running uphill from Old Ranch Road. "I have been receiving and have paid for water for over 30 years. We're all very disappointed with the lack of communication we've had from the city."

Mackey — who lives in single-occupancy household — says she pays an average of $1,200 in water bills each year, a figure that doesn't include wastewater fees. Others pay closer to $3,600 yearly. Stretch says the cost of maintaining the water lines is roughly $1,020 a month, and that the increased rates paid by the landowners "don't come close" to covering this expense, which includes a monthly cost for labor and materials as well as the cost for city personnel to walk the 1-mile round trip, climbing locked gates, to read the meters. A proposed rate increase, included in the city's letter to the landowners in November, was not well received.

"The fruits of their labor don't show," says Kay Peake, another neighbor. She has tucked her pant legs into her socks and sprayed herself thoroughly with insect repellent in preparation for our hike.

"The ticks are really bad this year," she explains, and then motions to where the road abruptly ends in a massive slide. A 1-inch length of black plastic pipe dangles over a gully overgrown with ferns. A footpath has been worn into the disturbed terrain, and she and Johnson pick their way through it, taking care to avoid stumbling as they climb in and out of the gully. On the other side of the slip-out is a holding tank bristling with a complicated network of pipes and tubes. Some are flagged with striped ribbons. Others are held in place with duct tape. A more permanent looking metal line, now defunct, runs alongside the plastic piping. The tank supplies four families. A remote radio water meter dangles from a tree.

This, says the city, is what it's all about: paying personnel to traverse on foot through tick-laden brush, poison oak and unstable terrain to reach the tank and read the meters. This is why it needs permanent vehicular access in order to uphold its obligation to the landowners.

Mackey, who assumed a de facto status as spokesperson for the landowners when the letter came in November, said that the issue of access raised some hackles from the very beginning.

"The city wasn't asking for temporary access to the road just to fix the line," she says. "They were asking for permanent access through private property."

Granting permanent access, also known as "right-of-ways" or easements, through private property is a tricky business. Once done, it is nearly impossible to undo. If a landowner grants permanent access to a friendly neighbor and the friendly neighbor then sells his or her land to someone less friendly, the right-of-way goes with the property. Many of the landowners expressed unease with the idea of the city selling to the "highest bidder" and having someone they didn't know driving through their property to reach the parcel currently owned by the city. One of the landowners living west of Old Ranch Road did offer temporary access through an alternate route, but the city turned the owner down, saying it was a "temporary solution to a long-term problem."

A few yards down from the water tank, Johnson points to a grove of second-growth redwood.

"There it is," she says. "This is what it's all about."

The grove sits on a five-acre parcel owned by the city of Rio Dell. It's a pretty little spot, with light filtering through the trees and water gurgling from a nearby spring. At one time, the spring provided water for the city, but the city abandoned it after analyzing the cost of retrofitting it to meet sanitation guidelines. Johnson's sister now has an easement to use the overflow water for her house, which sits downhill. The entire parcel is surrounded by the Coleman property. And this, Johnson says, is why the issue of repairing the lines came up in the first place.

She points to a well-maintained gravel road leading up the hill, away from her sister's house and Old Ranch Road.

"They would rather use this road, but that is my property. They will not use it."

On Feb. 10, 2014, the city sent a letter to John Coleman saying that it had "been unable to negotiate for perpetual access from the west side of the slip out," and as such would be improving Old Ranch Road on Feb. 24. It requested that Coleman remove a locked gate, but the city "could handle it" if he wished. It also said that the cost of repairing the road and the line would be split with the landowners as the new road "would give the city access to [their] property."

Johnson, speaking for the Coleman family, said that the letter was a "threat to remove their gate," and took umbrage at the idea that the city would be charging the landowners "an undetermined amount of an undetermined cost." Moreover, she said, the city did not have a legal right-of-way that included vehicular access. As proof, she presented a 1989 letter from the city's then-attorney Robert Zigler to the then-landowner, Charles Bowes, in which the city refused to make repairs on a the road whose right-of-way they “chose to abandon.” Also, bringing heavy equipment (not explicitly referred to in the city's letter, but assumed by Johnson) would violate an existing timber harvest plan on the Coleman land. A 2006 geological study of the region concludes that the soil is from an ancient alluvial river bed — sandy, unstable and far from the ideal conditions on which to build a road. The same study makes mention of the waterline and says that the "numerous leaks and repairs in the pipeline, and several small debris slide scars in the fillslope are likely related to previous pipeline breaks and or leaks." The Colemans referred the city to their lawyer. And then things got ugly.

On March 14, 2014, Stretch emailed landowners to inform them that a special subcommittee was prepared to report its findings to the city council. The subcommittee had been convened to address the issues related to the Old Ranch Road waterline and included Stretch, Mayor Thompson and City Attorney Russel Gans. It concluded that the city did have a vehicular right-of-way to the parcel, but as landowners were unwilling to honor it and allow access, the city was left with two options: Move the water meters to the county road, leaving the landowners responsible for maintaining the line themselves, or cut off the water altogether.

Four days later, the Rio Dell City Council meeting assembled to a restless audience.

Public comment on the issue stretched more than an hour. Several landowners disputed the city's proposed solution of moving the meters to the county road, saying that it would put an undue burden upon them both to maintain the abandoned lines and to negotiate with their neighbors for access to maintain them. They also said that communication from the city had been uneven and inadequate, and that further discussion and studies were crucial prior to taking action.

Mayor Thompson rebutted that the "situation was getting more complicated than it needed to be," and that further studies would incur more expense than either the city or the landowners would be willing to shoulder. He also said that the landowners had failed to act as a unified group in presenting their concerns to the city. This led to a heated exchange between Thompson and one of the landowners in the audience.

At the podium, Johnson took an icy tone as she asserted that city staff had never been impeded from servicing the line, that Stretch had willfully overlooked the 2006 geological survey that concluded the road was unstable, and that Thompson had a vested interest in the property, as at one time he had proposed opening a bottling plant using the spring.

High tempers ran higher. When Stretch began to reply to the commentary, he was interrupted by outbursts from the audience. Someone shouted, "Don't lie about it!" Thompson banged his gavel and threatened to close the meeting as another person shouted "This is ridiculous!"

In the meeting, city personnel responsible for maintaining the line said they were "fed up" with wading through poison oak to fix the pipe. City Attorney Russell Gans concurred with this position, saying that the status quo exposed the city to the potential for liability lawsuits. Stretch reasserted the subcommittee's position, but a decision was deferred in favor of more research.

An April 8 subcommittee meeting was marked by an exchange between Thompson and John Coleman in which John Coleman was threatened with removal from the meeting for "aggressive behavior."

At the May 6 city council meeting, Thompson took a gentler tone.

"We're not turning the water off," he said. "We're going to work this out."

He also denied the landowners' request to hold another subcommittee meeting with county supervisors Rex Bohn and Estelle Fennel present to represent the landowners, saying it was unnecessary.

"We can't convey how much worry we've had over this," he added.

At present, it doesn't look like the road will be repaired, the meters moved or the water turned off. Instead, the city will revisit the issue under Proposition 218 guidelines, which state that one group of utility ratepayers cannot subsidize another. It seems likely that the rates for landowners reliant on the Old Ranch Road line are going to go up.

Or, as Johnson put it on the day of our walk, "Now they're trying to rape us with fees."

Attempts to reach the public works department and members of the city council to comment on this issue were unsuccessful, but Stretch has been forthcoming about his perspective.

In a phone interview, he said, "I've been accused of having an agenda on this issue, and that's absolutely correct. I had a written agenda which I presented to the council and to the public. It's no secret. Ratepayers here in the city have subsidized the landowners on Old Ranch Road for a long time."

He added that the city has been equally transparent about its desire to sell their parcel at the end of Old Ranch Road and the role of viable access to the property in that sale. The property has been appraised as being worth $100,000, and the timber on the property is estimated as being worth an additional $180,000. He said that it "escapes him" why the landowners would want to deprive the city of a much-needed cash infusion, and reiterates that according to his and the subcommittee's findings, the city does have legal vehicular access to the land.

Of course, there is at least one potential buyer for whom a lack of right-of-way would not be an obstacle: the Coleman family. Locking in parcels in an attempt to drive down their market value is not unheard of with rural landowners. Neither Stretch nor Johnson would comment directly on the likelihood of one of the Coleman family buying the land, but Johnson did say that she thought the city's appraisal of the property was exorbitant.

In the meantime, a debate that looked to have been laid to rest was resurrected during the July 15 meeting, when City Councilmember Melissa Marks suggested that a police officer visit the parcel and demand that the Colemans stop pumping water from the spring on city property.

"If I can't use it, they shouldn't be allowed to use it," Marks said.

Stretch, who is preparing to hand over the keys (and a whole lot of responsibility) to his successor, Kyle Knopp, said that it didn't seem likely that the city would follow through with Marks' suggestion. He said he wasn't clear on how the Colemans were using the water on the city parcel, but that he understood it was being pumped uphill and into a holding tank, and that the Colemans only had permission to use overflow from the spring.

Johnson, who runs a water delivery service along with her husband, was careful to state in an email that they are not pumping the spring water out to sell to city customers, who have stepped up their demand for the Johnsons' services since the new water restrictions took effect. Johnson said her company purchases water from Eureka and other areas.

During the initial city council meeting that was to decide the fate of Old Ranch Road, one of the landowners referred to the history of the conflict as "extraordinarily complex." Her words were no exaggeration — the history of the waterline on Old Ranch Road dates back to before the city was even incorporated, and with each successive landowner, subdivision, political realignment and shift in policy, the strands of the controversy have become more tangled. But the common theme that runs beneath each renewed upheaval is that of water and property rights. As rainfall dwindles, water tables lower, rates rise and tensions mount, we can expect the conversation between those who provide this life-giving necessity and those who receive it to continue, rising in intensity from a murmur to a shout.

Editor's note: This story is slightly different from the print version that ran in the July 31 Journal.

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