SACRAMENTO — California water regulators will re-examine the way they determine water rights violations in the wake of the State Water Resources Control Board’s dismissal of a proposed $1.5 million fine to a water district east of the San Francisco Bay area.
Officials issued the fine to the Byron Bethany Irritation District at the height of the drought last summer, but the water board on June 7ww affirmed two hearing officers’ earlier ruling that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the district took water it wasn’t entitled to under its century-old water right.
As a result, the board will refine how it determines water availability based on lessons learned and hold a workshop later this year to discuss changes in its analyses, officials said.
The workshop will “investigate a more effective way to determine whether a violation has occurred and the fairest way to approach future prosecutions,” board spokesman George Kostyrko said in an email.
Byron Bethany, which is based in Byron, Calif., and serves about 160 farms, is looking forward to working with the water board “in a collaborative process to improve water availability analysis and enhance the state’s future water reliability,” general manager Rick Gilmore said in a statement.
“Much work remains to be done to bring clarity to the extent and nature of the board’s authority over California’s oldest water rights and water use,” he said.
The board also dismissed a similar administrative action against the West Side Irrigation District, which serves farmers near Tracy, Calif. District officials did not return calls from the Capital Press seeking comment.
The proposed sanctions drew criticism from some that the powerful water board was picking on smaller districts to set an example. The districts asked for a hearing and the state’s prosecutors put on their case, but board members Tam Doduc and Fran Spivy Weber, who were conducting the March hearing, abruptly halted it before the districts could present their rebuttals, The Associated Press reported. The hearing officers issued a draft order dismissing the cases on May 26.
The board maintains it has the authority to enforce against senior water right holders who continue to take water when there isn’t an adequate supply to service their right. However, “there was not sufficient data presented in this case to show that these particular water districts violated the water rights priority system,” board chairwoman Felicia Marcus told her colleagues.
The board didn’t determine that there was in fact water available for the districts, but water rights division employees had the burden of proof in an enforcement action, officials explained in a news release.
Prosecutors primarily relied on a forecasting analysis created by the water rights division to determine availability of water. The board found that the division’s forecast was accurate, but it wasn’t adequate without additional information to prove the specific violations alleged, the release explained.