Farmers and ranchers ride to protect water rights
They had planned it as a protest, but converted their parade to a rally after the district agreed to drop its suit.
The Cambria Community Services District provides water, wastewater, waste disposal, fire, rescue and other services in the community.
It filed a lawsuit Jan. 16 against more than 100 local agricultural landowners in an attempt to limit the amount of water they would have access to out of the San Simeon Creek Water Basin and the Van Gordon Creek watersheds. The suit sought an injunction against the farmers and ranchers in the Cambria area and would force them to stop using additional water until the matter was heard in court.
In court documents, the district called the agricultural water use “excessive and wasteful,” even though State Water Resources Board records show that 80 percent of the water taken out of the San Simeon Creek Water Basin is pumped by the district and only 20 percent is used for agriculture.
In February, farmers and rancher began meeting to organize and plan how to proceed against this action. Under the auspices of the Cambria Farm Center, a local branch of the Farm Bureau, the landowners formed the “Drop the Lawsuit Committee.” As names were added to the lawsuit, the number of landowners attending the meetings grew.
They also collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition that asked the district to drop the lawsuit. Not only were people appalled that agriculture was being asked to stop using water, but the district had budgeted more than $1 million toward legal fees for the action.
That was money the local landowners wanted to be spent on a solution, not on keeping longtime farmers and ranchers from staying in business.
In past drought years, the local farmers and ranchers have come to the aid of the community by providing well water and other relief to the very people that filed the lawsuit against them.
The group decided to hold a protest rally to draw attention to their plight, and began planning a parade down the main street to the site of the next Cambria Community Services District meeting.
Word spread quickly and soon 50 or more farmers and ranchers were willing to take the day off to drive their tractors, ride their horses, or walk in support of the cause. They garnered support from the local media and word got back to the district.
Seeing and hearing the support the farmers and ranchers had was more than the district was willing to handle. In an informal call, district officials contacted the “Drop the Lawsuit Campaign” members and told them they were going to vote to drop the lawsuit at the district’s March 27 meeting.
Joy Fitzhugh, a local cattle rancher and member of the Drop the Lawsuit Committee, was one of the first to hear the good news.
“It is very good news, but we are still going to have the rally,” said Fitzhugh. “Only now we are going to thank them and encourage them to work with us to come up with solutions. The problem still exists. We have a water problem here. No one denies that, but working together and not making it look like agriculture is causing the problem is a step in the right direction.”
PROTEST BECAME RALLY
The rally proceeded, and drew more than 100 local landowners affected by the impending legal action. Scores of onlookers and downtown merchants watched the procession through town.
David Barlogio, whose family has farmed and ranched in the area since the 1890s was on hand to show his support for stopping the lawsuit. He’s concerned about the future water rights for his grandchildren, who represent the fifth generation of farming on the coast.
“It’s all about water today,” said Barlogio, “and they are trying to take it away from us.”
“I’m joining this rally to support my fellow constituents,” said third generation rancher Larry Fiscalini, who grows vegetables and raises cattle in the area.
HARD WORK AHEAD
The district officials did vote 3-0 to drop the lawsuit. But now the hard work begins, to find solutions to the problem of the diminishing water supply.
“I’m not pleased with the outcome, just relieved. It’s not over by a long shot. There’s a lot of work to do,” said Fitzhugh.
“At least now, the ag community will have input,” she added. “They are planning on forming a committee to look at the problem and we will have representation. I hope they were genuine in their willingness to explore options with us. We need to work together to solve the problem.”
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