State threatens fines, jail for those who refuse to get permits
By TIM HEARDEN
ETNA, Calif. -- As pressure mounts against area ranchers because of their water diversions, a lawsuit challenging state permit requirements is heating up.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a heavyweight in the arena of property rights and land-use battles, has joined the California Cattlemen's Association in supporting a lawsuit against the California Department of Fish and Game.
The organizations filed court briefs backing the California Farm Bureau Federation in challenging DFG's authority to require special permits for irrigation in two remote valleys of far Northern California near the Oregon state line.
In an attempt to save threatened coho salmon, the state has 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 asserted 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 overstepping its bounds.
"It's one thing to have clear rules, but it's another thing when government makes its own rules and is able to interpret them as broadly as they choose," CCA executive vice president Matt Byrne told about 50 ranchers during a recent meeting here.
The PLF is watching the Farm Bureau's case closely because of its implications for Fish and Game water policy throughout the rest of the state, staff attorney Brandon Middleton said.
"It's a big concern because you've had these people in Siskiyou County using water in a reasonable manner for over a century," Middleton said. "They have to comply with various laws and regulations under the jurisdiction of the state Water Resources Control Board.
"On top of that, to have this new regulation by the Department of Fish and Game, that's really again not authorized under our reading of the statute," he said. "Especially the way the California economy is now, the last thing we need is another hurdle of regulation for cattle ranchers to go through."
The state Farm Bureau lawsuit is one of two challenging the blanket permits. The other was filed by environmentalists, who claim the state has never properly enforced laws relating to water diversions and that the permits violate the California Endangered Species and Environmental Quality acts.
Fish and Game's motion to dismiss the Farm Bureau case is slated to be heard Sept. 21 in Yreka. Barring a dismissal, the government has been trying to combine the case with the environmentalists' suit, which is being tried in San Francisco.
Some ranchers who signed up for the blanket permits are being asked to cut back on their irrigation, said Neil Manji, the DFG's regional manager based in Redding.
Holdouts were sent new letters in August again warning them of potential penalties, and wardens have visited the properties of some of the ranchers, he said.
"At this time we're not going out there with billy clubs and mace trying to get this thing done," Manji said. "We're trying to get as many ... permits issued to show the community up there that it's not really pulling teeth, it's just a nice teeth cleaning. I think everybody knows a lot of folks are afraid to go to the dentist to begin with."
Fish and Game is "not involved in a water grab," Manji said. The blanket permits were suggested by landowners in the wake of the coho salmon's listing under the state Endangered Species Act, he said.
The state may still allow some recalcitrant landowners to sign up for the watershed-wide permits if they give "a valid reason" why they didn't sign up during the enrollment period, he said.
"We want to leave that door open as best we can to allow others to enroll without making the folks who enrolled and us look like chumps," he said.
Pacific Legal Foundation: http://community.pacificlegal.org/Page.aspx?pid=183
California Cattlemen's Association: www.calcattlemen.org/home.html
California Farm Bureau Federation: http://cfbf.org
California Department of Fish and Game: www.dfg.ca.gov