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Winter 2014

Talking Water with Tom Ellis by Cody Hess

Ask anyone in Colusa County for perspective on local water issues, and odds are someone will probably refer you to Mr. Tom Ellis.

A Colusa County native, and an alfalfa and rice farmer by trade, Ellis is also quite the historian, conversant on everything from the history of dredging in Colusa County to the failed Auburn Dam project. Last December, we sat down to chat about water-related matters affecting California farmers.

When asked for his opinion on the future of California agriculture, Ellis expressed his concern regarding future water supply and storage efforts. “There haven’t been any dams built in a long time,” said Ellis, adding that new storage facilities and water delivery systems are needed, especially as California heads into what will likely be another drought year.

Due to the insecurity of area-of-origin water rights in the north state, Ellis is against the Bay Delta Conservation Plan [BDCP]’s efforts to shore up greater water supplies for Southern California. With the north state’s own water needs expected to increase alongside those of Southern California, “It’s almost impossible to maintain the Delta and supply the water that Southern California demands,” said Ellis.

Seeing as the project has come under fire for many things, including its $25 billion price tag and decades-long proposed construction, Ellis suggested that making improvements to and maintaining existing Delta levees may prove to be a more cost-effective alternative to the BDCP’s goals of sustainability, conservation, and water transport. Fortunately, there is yet another option: 3rd District Assemblyman Dan Logue recently proposed a bond for two water storage projects — Sites Reservoir near Maxwell and Temperance Flats Dam near Fresno — as a cheaper substitute for the BDCP, and a safeguard for the north state’s water rights.

Curious to understand how water restrictions may have impacted his business, I asked Ellis if he has had to draw water from his reserves. Most of Ellis’ land is within Reclamation District 108 (RD 108), which lies along the western edge of the Sacramento River, near Grimes. Ellis feels it has one of the best water rights situation in the state.

“RD 108 lands are pretty secure…as long as there is water in the [Sacramento] river, we can get it out.” Ellis also has a back-up plan in the event his Sacramento River resources are reduced. “When we get short on our allocation, we run the well,” Ellis said. However, due to the high cost of pumping, and the equally expensive risk of seismic damage to wells, Ellis cautioned against their unnecessary use.

California flood insurance premiums are forecasted to rise significantly in the coming years. Currently, state legislators are working on a bill to delay the increases in flood insurance premiums affecting rural areas and agricultural buildings. Ellis’ property was grandfathered in on old insurance rates, but he’s not sure how long that favored status will last. Concerned about a big increase yet to come, Ellis worries that soaring insurance costs would make obtaining building permits hard to justify, almost coming close to the cost of buying one’s property all over again.  

Before joining Family Water Alliance, I saw agriculture as a world apart, something beyond my comprehension. However, through speaking with Mr. Ellis, I feel I have gained unique insight into agriculture, water rights, and some of the myriad challenges that accompany life as a farmer. I look forward to learning more. 




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