Photo courtesy of Sen. Jim Nielsen
SACRAMENTO — A top state water official has gently rebuffed a lawmaker’s request that she reconsider a decision to ramp up enforcement of stop-diversion orders issued to water rights holders because of drought conditions.
Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said in a letter that the State Water Resources Control Board should practice “more fairness” as it implements emergency legislation that broadens the board’s powers and increases fines for illegal diversions.
The board adopted its new curtailment regulations on July 2, enabling officials to expedite enforcement of shutoff orders the board has issued to junior rights holders throughout the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
“As demonstrated by the crowd gathered at the public hearing, stakeholders, including myself, will continue to have criticism and suggestions for these regulations,” wrote Nielsen, who owns a ranch in Tehama County.
“People took time from tending to the farm, ranch and the office to travel to Sacramento and voice their concerns,” he said in the letter to board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus. “While you listened to some of our concerns, I ask that you listen to all of our voices and reconsider the adopted regulations.”
However, Marcus responded that the “difficult times” brought on by “the historic extent of the drought” made the measures necessary.
“We appreciate the senator understanding how hard we are trying to listen to water rights holders as we implement curtailments according to the seniority system decreed in California law,” she told the Capital Press in an email. “At issue is how to do so in a manner that effectively protects water to which people are entitled by preventing those who are not entitled to it from taking it.
“The regulations … afford opportunity to challenge curtailments in a timely fashion while also requiring a timely response from the board,” she said.
California Cattlemen’s Association leaders were pleased that the water board amended its proposal to exclude pre-1914 and riparian rights holders from the regulations, although curtailments of senior rights holders may still occur under the current system, a CCA legislative bulletin explained.
Water board officials have said only about 31 percent of the 7,900 landowners who received curtailment notices have returned the required form affirming they have stopped diverting. State officials are concerned that landowners may try to use an appeal process to delay the order, so the new rule enables the state to enforce shutoff orders right away even if a determination is under appeal.
Under Senate Bill 104, the emergency drought bill that included $472.5 million in relief, the water board was able to increase penalties for illegally diverting water during a drought from the current amount of up to $500 a day to as much as $1,000 per day and up to $2,500 per acre-foot of water illegally used, a Senate bill analysis explains.
The bill also increases the penalty for violating a cease-and-desist order for water diversion from $1,000 to $10,000 per day in drought years, according to the analysis.
Nielsen cast one of the only three “no” votes when the bill passed the Senate on Feb. 27. It passed 68-1 in the Assembly the same day.
The board’s regulations will take effect on or about July 14 after they’ve been submitted to the state’s Office of Administrative Law, according to a board news release.
California State Water Resources Control Board: http://www.swrcb.ca.gov
Sen. Jim Nielsen: http://district4.cssrc.us
California Cattlemen’s Association: http://www.calcattlemen.org