State conservation official says legal challenges haven't had an effect yet
By TIM HEARDEN
Sign-ups for a special watershed-wide permit have continued as the California Farm Bureau Federation and environmental groups have separately sued the state Department of Fish and Game over the program.
The resource conservation districts that serve ranchers in two remote valleys in far Northern California near the Oregon state line had signed up "a substantial majority" of eligible water users as of the June 7 deadline, their officials said.
The state has told landowners in the Scott and Shasta valleys they could face fines or jail if they didn't sign up for the special blanket streambed alteration and incidental take permits or obtain permits on their own.
The effort has sparked lawsuits from the state Farm Bureau on behalf of the ranchers and from environmental groups, who claim the blanket permits violate state environmental laws.
"They're having no effect on the program at all," Siskiyou Resource Conservation District President Bill Krum said of the legal challenges. "That's not to say that they might not ultimately have an effect, but it takes time for things to work through the legal process."
The state is trying to protect populations of threatened coho salmon that spawn in the Scott and Shasta rivers, key tributaries to the troubled Klamath River. Some ranchers assert the state is violating their water and property rights by requiring the permits.
The state Farm Bureau agreed, filing a lawsuit May 25 claiming the DFG is exceeding its authority by threatening to restrict farmers' rights to irrigate their crops.
Jack Rice, the CFBF's environmental counsel, argues the DFG is changing how it enforces a 1961 state code which requires landowners to notify the government if they substantially divert water. He argues the law has never applied to people simply taking water from a stream rather than physically altering the channel.
The state Farm Bureau's suit drew criticism from Earthjustice and other conservation groups, who have already gone to court to oppose the watershed-wide permits. The groups issued new court filings May 24 accusing the state of violating California's Endangered Species and Environmental Quality acts.
"If you ask me, I still don't see the political will to put strong restrictions in those permits that will actually protect fisheries," said Erica Terence, program director of Klamath Riverkeeper in Orleans, Calif.
The Shasta Valley Resource Conservation District board was set to discuss next steps with its attorney before its June 9 meeting. Meanwhile, the district had accepted about 50 applications as of June 7, administrator Adriane Garayalde said.
"As of today, we're just continuing on," she said.
Krum said legal challenges from environmentalists could prove more harmful to area farmers than could the state's enforcement efforts.
"They are very concerned about ground water and the whole concept of ... take, and all we have done here is to bring our people into compliance with the California Endangered Species Act," Krum said. "We believe this program does that, and Fish and Game believes the same thing."
California Farm Bureau Federation: http://cfbf.org
California Department of Fish and Game: www.dfg.ca.gov
Siskiyou Resource Conservation District: www.siskiyourcd.org
Shasta Valley Resource Conservation District: www.svrcd.org