A battle over water rights between town residents and a multi-national corporation taps into deeper, moral questions
When the citizens of Weed, California turn on their taps, pure gravity-fed spring water flows out. It’s been that way for over a century. But Roseburg Forest Products (RFP) owns the land beneath the springs. If the Oregon-based timber giant has their way, Crystal Geyser will bottle and ship that water as far away as Japan and locals will need to find another source.
Water rights in this picturesque hamlet, nestled beneath the flanks of Mount Shasta, have pit local control against corporate profit. The outcome will be determined by a Siskiyou County Judge as soon as this summer—or it could take years. While lawyers file demurs and prepare for a day in court, Weed’s 2,800 citizens face an uncertain water future.
The dispute revolves around Beaughan Springs, which is situated in a pine forest a short walk from town. RFP claims that land ownership confers exclusive rights to every drop from the spring, which is the sole source of drinking water for Weed’s residents. Local citizens, city leaders, and the lawyers who represent them claim that the 1932 Shasta River Decree guaranteed a portion of the water for domestic and municipal use.
“We contend the company held the water rights in trust for a specific purpose and if they want to change that purpose they need court permission,” says Weed Mayor Ken Palfini.
Back in 1897, Abner Weed bought the land surrounding what would become the Siskiyou Lumber and Mercantile Mill and the town of Weed for $400. Until the 1960s, Weed was operated as a classic company town.
In 1961, it was incorporated as a city. International Paper, RFP’s predecessor, sold the infrastructure for water delivery and sewage to the town, but instead of granting water rights, they signed a 50-year lease for 2.0 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) for $1 a year. That lease expired in 2016.
A year ago, faced with the prospect of having to rent water trucks to supply drinking water, the city declared a state of emergency. At a city council meeting last April, after hours of emotional testimony from over 100 residents, three city council members approved a new Water Lease Agreement (WLA), with two members voting in opposition.
Under the new WLA, the amount of water Weed can use immediately decreases from 2.0 to 1.5 cfs, and the amount the town pays immediately increases from $1 a year to $97,500 a year. The WLA also requires the town to…