SEPP: I attended the Sepp Workshop in the Bay Area, CA. I think Sepp is a good teacher because of his passion and experience, but he is also impatient with questions he feels he has answered or does not understand. Thus, the language barrier becomes a big factor. Nuances in questions are lost, and frustration mounts on all sides. Although I respect Sepp very much, his impatience keeps him from being a great teacher for anyone who does not speak his language. Despite this, it was good to see Sepp in person at this conference. Better yet, was meeting the folks from Montana that came out to help with the conference. I learned an amazing amount about earth-sheltered greenhouses and the plants I should consider on my property, and I left feeling very encouraged about my ability to apply permaculture to my small 5 acre holding here in the far northern side of California.
AFFORDABLE LAND IN CALIFORNIA: There actually is affordable rural land in the very northern-most part of California. Check out Modoc and Lassen Counties. My property is in the pine forest in Modoc County and we are surrounded by wildlife (including bear, bobcat and cougar) and have lots of fishing opportunities nearby. You can get an acre of land near me (in "Cal Pines" near Alturas) for as little as $2000. Less if you buy the property through the tax collector auctions.
A NOTE ON PURCHASING PROPERTY: While an acre of land may sound like a lot to some folks, be forewarned that it gets eaten up quickly! When you buy rural property, local regulations will require that you sink a well and install a septic system (hardly any state will allow you to rely on composting toilets or outhouses), in addition to siting your house. All of these have setback requirements from each other as well as from property lines and bodies of water. In addition, sinking a well (the first thing you need to do as it is the hardest to do successfully) is a hit and miss proposition and may cost you $20,000 or more, depending on how deep you have to go to reach water and how many holes have to be dug before you find it. Here in Cal Pines, you really need to plan on purchasing at least 3 acres to get all of these to fit on one site, and even then, you are not guaranteed to be successful.
A NOTE ON "ASKING FORGIVENESS": I am a retired City Planner and Redevelopment Specialist from California, and I want to warn everyone that "asking forgiveness" can be a very costly and uncertain business. I went into redevelopment as a profession because I could not stand the policing role that I was forced to play as a City Planner. As a redevelopment professional, I was encouraged to find a way to help development happen in areas that were desperate for it, so I know a lot about regulations and how to work within (and around) them. The first thing to assess is "what is your risk?". This will depend on your neighbors and regulators. In a wealthy town in Southern California a contractor was forced to move a house he had just built (and that had passed earlier City inspections) six inches over because it turned out it was within the City's right of way. I am talking about a 3,000 square foot, two story structure that was already stuccoed! It was not an obvious error either. It did not impinge on the sidewalk or site-distance for drivers, so leaving it would not have been a problem. The City refused to sell the land to the contractor. Instead, they insisted it be moved off their right-of-way. Governments enforce planning rules through police power (protecting public health and safety), and this gives them A LOT of leeway in how they enforce planning codes. Beware!
My recommendation is, before you step off a steep cliff, get to know your neighbors (as they will be the first source of complaints against you). Live in an area for awhile before you start bending the rules. Make some friends. Be seen as likeable and helpful to your community. Also, look around. Is everyone else ignoring the rules?? Are they getting away with it?? If they do, you may have a better chance of avoiding a lot of trouble. Ask around. Fit into the community. This works best in a small town that doesn't have a lot of money to throw into policing and frivolous lawsuits.
You will have the most luck (and the least financial risk) with little bends to the rules. Like, widening a pond that is already on your property, or installing a composting toilet in your barn, or modifying the existing plumbing in your already built and permitted house to recover grey water for the garden. However, when you start bigger projects, like building a house. You bring a lot of focus onto what you are doing and many people will be concerned. Houses will still only involve local officials, so if you know them, and know your neighbors, you can get a good feel for how they will respond. On the other hand, when you interfere with waterways, you involve a level of government that is largely outside of local control. This is bad because your local relationships can't help you much if you get into trouble.
It is true that seasonal streams are less important to Federal and State Agencies, but they are still watching them as they feed into other streams, ponds and lakes. However, there are some arguments you can successfully use to get permission to create a pond on your property. The most important thing to watch when asking permission (or explaining what you have already done) is to use LOCAL LANGUAGE. Sepp covered this well in his presentation. DON'T tell your local regulator (or uninformed neighbors) that you are building a pond for PERMACULTURE. They will not know what this is, and because it is beyond their understanding and experience, they will be very concerned about it. Instead, pick a use they understand because it fits into their world. For instance, rural areas that work livestock are used to seeing "watering holes" for the livestock. Also, areas with a serious fire risk (especially ones that have a volunteer fire department) will be more inclined to like that you are putting in "a pond to help with fire control". Areas with flooding, especially where a public road is often flooded, will be more inclined to look favorably on a project that is intended to "control flooding". Who cares (other than you) that it also furthers your permaculture plans? You don't have to tell them about ALL its uses, just tell them enough to either get permission or forgiveness. Just be careful of that forgiveness clause. It can be very expensive indeed.