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A Way of Life May Be Eroding

La Grange has been getting virtually free water for 80 years. Now officials seek to change that in a case of old rights versus modern realities.

September 19, 2002|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA GRANGE, Calif. — Water flows freely in this fading town of retirees, tucked next to the Tuolumne River and surrounded by yellowed grassland as far as the eye can see. Most folks are home around the clock, flushing toilets, washing dishes and watering lawns. Sprinklers sometimes spray for hours, and one homeowner hoses the street daily in a compulsive battle with dust.

And why not? The price is certainly right. La Grange residents have been charged just $1.50 a month for water for nearly 80 years. That's possibly the lowest rate in the state and, even at that, many toss their bills in the trash as unjustified.

The water is theirs to waste, they claim, citing historic rights and an 81-year-old contract. But the era of virtually free, un-metered water may be coming to an end. Officials who have delivered the water since 1921 are pushing to install meters and eventually bill residents according to their use.

The stakes in this tiny Sierra Nevada foothill community (pop. fewer than 200) may seem small. But the squabble--which has landed in Stanislaus County Superior Court--reflects the unblinking animosity toward water regulation in this part of the state, even during extreme drought.

Water is seen as a God-given right by many in the Central Valley and Sierra foothills. Key communities--Modesto, Fresno and Sacramento among them--don't meter residents, so the use of water goes unchecked. An 82-year-old amendment to Sacramento's City Charter forbids the gadgets altogether, and residents simply pay a flat fee.

Modesto has installed meters on new residential construction as required by a decade-old state law, but the devices whirl, unread, as ornamental as wind chimes.

The aging inhabitants of La Grange say they are fighting to protect rights forged by their forbearers. But the pressure to change is mounting as the old rights--and the culture of entitlement passed down with them--increasingly collide with modern realities of growth, drought, pollution and strict environmental standards.

Key California water laws have often sprung from tiny out-of-the-way places, and La Grange's case raises provocative questions about how airtight age-old water pacts are in the face of new pressures. As sacrosanct as senior water rights are, since 1928 the state Constitution has required that all water use be "reasonable and beneficial." No court has yet ruled that a lack of metering is in itself unreasonable, but legal experts believe a court very well could. The question of who should pay for the rising costs of water treatment could also be resolved by La Grange's case, sending ripples through much larger disputes elsewhere.

"It shows how these ancient rights can crop up in the 21st century and lead to big conflagrations," said Brian Gray, a Hastings Law School water rights expert who is not involved with the case. "There is a visceral feeling: 'These are our rights, they're the most senior and that's the end of the case.' And it's not the end of the case."

*

Gold mining made La Grange--placer mining, then hydraulic mining and finally dredging, which turned the rivers upside down, spewing massive rock tailings.

The town thrived, fed by its claim to the first water down the Tuolumne River. Once the county seat, thousands of Italian, French, Irish and Chinese immigrants crammed its streets. The Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, the state's first public water districts, were born in 1887. They built the La Grange Dam, then hailed as the world's tallest.

The water ditches and accompanying rights changed hands several times. But each transfer--including the last in 1921 to the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, for construction of the Don Pedro Dam--guaranteed "the right of the inhabitants of the town of La Grange to water for domestic and garden purposes and for the needs of the town."

The Turlock district would manage the La Grange water system. An irrigation purveyor and electric utility, it serves no other residential water customers. La Grange doesn't even fall within its boundaries, so residents aren't voting constituents. But the marriage was made.

The great mining dredges' 24-hour squeal fell silent in 1948, and the town withered. Still, water flowed to La Grange, feeding its worn cluster of homes, the Fire Department, cemetery, post office, county park and public restrooms. It is now a shadow of its former self--one bar, two general stores and the ghosts of history.

"The water is about all this little town really has, plus the rodeo in the spring," said Grover McCoy, 72, who operated the town water system for 31 years before retiring in 1994.

For decades, Turlock Irrigation District officials made only token efforts to impose controls on La Grange. They enacted the $1.50 charge in 1926.

Then, in 1983, district officials quietly drew a town boundary, which locals said unfairly limited growth and cut out properties that had long received water.

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