State oversteps role in gates, screens

Preston Harris


For the Capital Press

There has been much confusion in regard to the events that took place Oct. 4-7 in Scott Valley, Calif., within the French Creek drainage.

Reports that the head gate on surface diversion 43 had been shut down by the California Department of Fish and Game need to be cleared up. Several people throughout Scott Valley have heard that the DFG had "shut down" this head gate and they are not happy about it.

With so much going back and forth about the situation, the primary landowners and water users associated with the French Creek drainage would like to make a public statement about events on diversions 43 and 47A. Here are the facts:

* DFG did remove two fish screens along French Creek on Oct. 6 without contacting any of the active water diverters along diversion 43 or the other landowners. In addition, the department removed a second fish screen on diversion 47A, assuming it was out of use for the season.

The screens were removed for yearly maintenance, according to the DFG, which installed them several years ago and maintains them.

* According to the DFG, the screens were removed and set on the ditch bank because the employee claimed both ditches were dry and no longer in use. Again, no water diverters or landowners were notified.

* On Oct. 7, one water user at the end of the ditch realized that no stock water was flowing to his animals and that three cattle herds had broken down fences and gotten mixed together in an effort to find water. In addition, his horses got scrapes and cuts while breaking though fences to get to water.

The head gate had been shut and the fish screen removed. The water user reinstalled the fish screens and opened the head gate. Later that day DFG was contacted about head gate 43. The DFG admits taking out the screens but claims the ditch was dry and the head gate was shut prior to the screen's removal.

This information doesn't coincide with reports from two water users that claim water was seen flowing Oct. 5, a day after the ditch (43) was said to be dry by the DFG. As of today, no one has come forward to claim responsibility for tampering with the head gate.

At the other diversion (47A) the ditch was indeed dry, because the water users had shut it when water flows were low.

However, this does not give the DFG the right to remove the screens.

* Four times in the last six years the department has shut head gates and removed fish screens without notifying or asking for permission from landowners or water users on diversions 47A and 43. Most recently, in the fall of 2009, a similar situation took place were the DFG admitted to closing the head gate on 43 to push out fish that would be trapped between the head gate and fish screen during low flows.

After the fish had been removed the screens, brushes and kick backs were pulled and the head gate left shut. The Department of Water Resources ditch master for French Creek noticed the untimely closing of the head gate and contacted two of the primary water users on the ditch to see if either had closed it. When both said they hadn't, the DFG employees responsible for screen maintenance said they had closed the head gate and pulled the screen.

The water users asked, not for the first time, that they be contacted whenever the DFG would like to pull the screens for maintenance.

Clearly, the request was not acknowledged.

These two instances have similar patterns -- closed head gates, pulled screens without permission or notification and a pattern where the DFG has assumed water users are either finished irrigating, or that flows are no longer sufficient for stock water delivery.

It is not the department's responsibility to assume anything about these diversions -- or any others in Scott Valley, for that matter.

* The most important factor is the landowners on both diversions have year-round stockwater adjudications. The ditches are only shut down by the water users for maintenance, cleaning and by the users and ditch master during periods of late season low flow when they deem stockwater delivery is inadequate. The DFG has never had authority to shut the head gates for any reason unless permission is granted.

Lack of communication by the DFG put several landowners and water users on these diversions at a serious liability. What would happen if these head gates where opened without the screens in place? Fish could have swum straight into the irrigation ditches and into fields, which would result in a "take" as defined by the DFG.

Also, the department's actions could have been disastrous for livestock if the situation was not quickly reversed. Even with no one claiming responsibility for shutting the head gate, the DFG must be held accountable for its actions. If it were a landowner or water user who was "out of compliance," that person would be slapped with heavy fines.

We urge any landowners or surface water diverters who have been bullied, threatened or had any aspect of their ditch water delivery systems tampered with to come out with the information in order to have a record of these events and to get the proper information out to the public.

Preston Harris is a Scott Valley, Calif., rancher and French Creek water diverter.

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