Ranchers says permits violate property rights
By TIM HEARDEN
REDDING, Calif. - Ranchers in two remote valleys in far Northern California have sat down with state officials to voice their objections to new irrigation permit requirements.
Some landowners in the Scott and Shasta valleys near the Oregon state line have resisted the permits, claiming the state Department of Fish and Game is violating their water and property rights.
Neil Manji, the DFG's new regional manager in Redding, said the agency is trying to educate landowners about the need for the permits, which aim to prevent the loss of threatened coho salmon.
"I know it's been a bone of contention for some of the landowners up there, but we're trying to ease into this as best we can and be fair," said Manji, who took his post in August.
Manji recently held two meetings with landowners, including one hosted by California Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, in an effort to smooth relations. Ranchers credit Manji for listening to their concerns but still voice frustration over the permitting program.
"We were slated to have about an hour, and this ended up going three hours," said rancher Mark Baird, a member of a group called Scott Valley Protect Our Water. "Essentially Fish and Game in their never-ending arrogance intends to proceed with this program in spite of all the inconsistencies and illegalities of the whole thing.
"We will continue to resist this," he said. "I think the thing is, this is our property. I don't have any big check waiting for me. My ranch is all we have ... We're literally fighting for the ground underneath our feet."
The meetings aimed to ease tensions that have simmered since the state told landowners in the Scott and Shasta valleys they could face fines or jail if they didn't sign up for special blanket streambed alteration and incidental take permits, or obtain permits on their own.
While a majority of ranchers obtained the blanket permits during an enrollment period last spring, others have refused. Those landowners will be given the opportunity to sign up during another enrollment period, whose dates have yet to be determined, Manji said.
The special permits sparked a pair of lawsuits against DFG. The California Farm Bureau Federation claims the state is overstepping its authority by requiring permits for simple water diversions, while conservation groups assert the blanket permits violate environmental laws.
As the lawsuits have proceeded, Fish and Game wardens have continued to visit the properties of holdouts and warn them of consequences of not signing up. Some landowners have complained of wardens entering their properties without notice and tampering with fish screens and diversion facilities.
Ranchers were told the DFG would begin prosecutions of non-permit holders next spring, said Preston Harris, a Scott Valley rancher.
Manji said there is no timetable for enforcement actions, and the department realizes that taking "the legal route" with each landowner would be "a no-win."
A determination of whether a landowner is violating the state's fish and game code is "not really cut and dry," Manji said, adding there are "several things the department needs to look at to determine whether or not a permit is required."
Some diversions in the Scott and Shasta valleys may not be considered significant, although most agricultural operations there "fall within the category of needing to at least consult with Fish and Game," he said.
"What we're trying to do is just to be as transparent (as possible) and continue to have open lines of communication," he said.
Scott Valley Protect Our Water: http://pienpolitics.com/
California Farm Bureau Federation: http://cfbf.org
California Department of Fish and Game: www.dfg.ca.gov