Actions by House, state board show depth of drought


Issue Date: July 22, 2015
By Kate Campbell

Amid a flurry of water-right enforcement actions and reissued curtailment notices that underlined the severity of drought-related water shortages, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation intended to ease drought impacts.

H.R. 2898, the Western Water and American Food Security Act, passed the House on a 245-176 vote last week, sending the legislation to the Senate.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger called the bill an "important building block for improving California's water system." He thanked the bill's author, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and the California representatives who carried the bill, and encouraged the Senate to act soon.

Valadao said his bill would require federal agencies to "use current and reliable data" when making regulatory decisions and give federal regulators flexibility to capture more water during wet years. It would also expedite federal studies of California water storage projects.

Wenger said passage of the House bill "represents an important step to addressing problems that limit the flexibility of the California water system. We also recognize that more steps will be needed to attain that goal."

Wenger noted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has taken a long-standing interest in improving the state's water system.

"We look forward to seeing a proposal from the Senate in the near future, and to having Sen. Feinstein work with House members from California to craft a bill that can win widespread support," he said.

As supporters of the congressional legislation considered its prospects in the Senate, state water regulators announced a series of water-enforcement actions.

The most recent came Monday, when the State Water Resources Control Board issued what it called a draft administrative civil liability complaint against the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, alleging unauthorized diversion and use of water. The complaint included a proposed $1.5 million penalty for the alleged violations.

The complaint was the first such enforcement action taken against a senior water right holder in 2015.

The Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, based in Byron, holds a water right dating to May 1914, to draw water from the intake channel at the Banks Pumping Plant in Contra Costa County, formerly known as Italian Slough.

On June 12, the water board, said it notified all appropriative right holders with a priority date of 1903 or later in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watersheds and delta that there was insufficient supply available to meet the needs of all water right holders, and that water was no longer available for diversion under their right.

The water board charges that diversion records kept by the Department of Water Resources indicated Byron-Bethany continued to divert water until about June 25, nearly two weeks after being notified that water was no longer available under its priority of right.

A few days earlier, the water board issued a draft cease-and-desist order against the West Side Irrigation District of Tracy for an allegedly unauthorized diversion or use of water. That was the first water right enforcement action taken against a junior water right holder.

The West Side Irrigation District has a post-1914 water right that authorizes direct diversion from Old River in San Joaquin County from April 1 to Oct. 31 of each year for irrigation, municipal, domestic and industrial uses.

Curtailment notices to the district and other holders of post-1914 rights in the Sacramento River watershed and the delta were issued May 1, the board said. During a May 18 inspection, it said, the district was observed to be pumping water out of Old River.

In another action related to water-rights curtailments, the water board partially rescinded and reissued water supply availability notices last week to more than 4,600 holders of more than 9,300 junior and senior water rights. The board said it did so to clarify that although previous notices were only advisory, diverting water where none is legally available could result in significant penalties.

Rewording and resending warning notices was prompted by a judge's ruling, granting a temporary restraining order to prevent curtailments of water to four delta-area irrigation districts and allow review of the order to curtail.

The request for a temporary restraining order against water board enforcement was brought by the West Side Irrigation District and the Stockton-based Central Delta Water Agency, South Delta Water Agency and Woods Irrigation Co., which received curtailment notices for their senior diversion rights in May and June.

During a conference call with reporters Monday, state water board officials said they made 900 inspections of water diversions in 2014 and they are still processing the results of those inspections.

Maximum penalties for illegal diversions were increased to $1,000 a day and $2,500 an acre-foot last year, as part of the state's drought response.

Attorneys for the water board said there is no statute of limitations on actions taken against alleged illegal diversions. Results of investigations in 2014 continue to be analyzed, they said, while enhanced inspections of diversions in 2015 continue.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.