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They defied California and drained an important salmon stream. Their fine: $50 per farmer

Sacramento Bee 11/10/2022 Ryan Sabalow, The Sacramento Bee
Ron Reed, of the Karuk Tribe, fishes for salmon with his traditional dip net in the Klamath River at Ishi Pishi Falls on Sept. 29, 2022, in Siskiyou County. His son-in-law Asa Donahue, along with tribal Councilman Troy Hockaday, helped contribute to the morning catch, which was then cleaned by tribal youth and contributed to elders and others. © Xavier Mascareñas/The Sacramento Bee/TNS Ron Reed, of the Karuk Tribe, fishes for salmon with his traditional dip net in the Klamath River at Ishi Pishi Falls on Sept. 29, 2022, in Siskiyou County. His son-in-law Asa Donahue, along with tribal Councilman Troy Hockaday, helped contribute to the morning catch, which was then cleaned by tribal youth and contributed to elders and others.

For eight straight days this summer, farmers in far Northern California drained almost all of the water out of a river in defiance of the state’s drought regulations. The move infuriated environmentalists and salmon-dependent Native American tribes downstream.

California now knows the cost of the farmers’ blatant defiance: Less than $50 per farmer.

It’s the latest example of California’s lax water-use enforcement process — problems that were first exposed in a sweeping Sacramento Bee investigation published online last week.

On Friday, a day after The Bee’s story went online, the State Water Resources Control Board proposed issuing a $4,000 fine against the Shasta River Water Association, an irrigation district serving about 100 farmers and ranchers in Siskiyou County.

In August, the association disregarded a state drought order and turned on its pumps for eight days, sucking out nearly two-thirds of the water flowing down the Shasta River. State and federal biologists said the pumping almost certainly killed protected salmon.

Despite the alleged ecological harms — and the irrigation district making no secret it took the water to fill dry livestock ponds — a fine of $500 a day was the maximum amount the water board could levee on the farmers, said Robert Cervantes, the water rights enforcement program manager at the water board.

Jim Scala, a cattle rancher and Shasta River Water Association president, is photographed at home on his ranch Sept. 30, 2022, outside Montague in Siskiyou County. © Xavier Mascareñas/The Sacramento Bee/TNS Jim Scala, a cattle rancher and Shasta River Water Association president, is photographed at home on his ranch Sept. 30, 2022, outside Montague in Siskiyou County.

Cervantes acknowledged that less than $50 per farmer isn’t much of a deterrent, but the ranchers were savvy enough to shut off their pumps a few days before the fines would have increased to up to $10,000 a day.

He called the Shasta Water Users Association case the “poster child” for changing the law to give his agency more authority to crack down on violations.

“In the face of increased climate change and more severe droughts,” he said, “we’re going to need to be able to have the tools we need to make a positive impact and manage watersheds throughout the state, not just in Siskiyou County.”

Two farmers on the association’s board didn’t return a message from The Bee Wednesday for this story, but one of them told CalMatters they might just keep fighting back.

“I don’t want to pay them a dime. I want to take them to court,” The association’s president, Jim Scala, told CalMatters. “Because if we pay them $4,000 or $10,000, that’s like admitting that we were in the wrong.”

Downstream from the where the Shasta River flows into the Klamath River, members of the Karuk Tribe are furious that the fines amounted to less than a tank of gas in each of the farmers’ pickups — hardly a disincentive.

“What’s preventing them from doing it again next year?” asked Arron “Troy” Hockaday, a Karuk tribal councilman.

The Karuk and other area tribes have been fighting for years to urge regulators to force farmers to leave more water in the Shasta River to provide habitat for salmon that play an important role in their economic, cultural and spiritual lives. The tribes have watched in horror as salmon numbers in the Klamath Basin have declined substantially over the years.

Bee investigation uncovers problems

The Bee’s investigation last week revealed how badly unprepared California’s regulators are to police water use over California’s 189,454 miles of rivers, which suffer from chronic water shortages and the threat of an ecosystem collapse.

▪ On average, just 11% of farms and cities have complied with a 2015 state law requiring them to accurately monitor and report their water use to the State Water Resources Control Board. In the Shasta River valley, the compliance rate is 7%. Even if compliance were to improve, the state water board lacks the tools to analyze the data properly to determine if unauthorized diversions are taking place.

▪ California’s difficulties in getting a handle on water consumption can lead to poor outcomes for the environment. One glaring example: A federal program to restore salmon on the San Joaquin River has struggled because billions of gallons of water disappear from the river some years. No one can say for sure who exactly is taking it, and whether it’s even legal for them to do so. ▪ California lacks a robust system for metering water flowing through its rivers. There are just 1,000 functioning stream gauges on a river system that’s 189,454 miles long. A recent report by a consortium of state agencies says the shortage of gauges “results in data gaps that hamper effective management of California’s limited water resources.”

▪ Crackdowns on violators are rare. And when penalties are issued, cases can drag on for years in administrative hearings and courtrooms before anyone is actually forced to pay. In the case of the Shasta River Water Association, which was featured prominently in The Bee’s investigation, the $4,000 fine issued Friday isn’t necessarily the final say.

There’s a mandatory 20-day waiting period before it takes effect. The farmers also can request a hearing, or they can follow through on Scala’s threat and go to court, dragging out the process that began in August for even more months.

The Bee’s findings “should serve as a wake up call” for the Legislature and the Governor’s Office to change the law to give the water board authority to act quickly and decisively to enforce the state’s water-sharing rules, said Richard Frank, the director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis.

Frank noted that other environmental regulatory agencies, such as the California Coastal Commission, aren’t nearly as hamstrung as the water board is when it comes enforcing the rules governing the resources they’re tasked with protecting.

“I can’t for the life of me understand why in an area so important as fair and equitable use of a limited water supply,” Frank said, “why the water board doesn’t have comparable powers.”

©2022 The Sacramento Bee. Visit sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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