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What a Rancher Rebellion Means for California’s Water

“We were in a critical situation. We have cattle out of water. . . . We have nowhere to move them. You can’t just get them in and sell them tomorrow.”

The aim is to protect salmon and trout species, including steelhead, fall-run Chinook and threatened Coho salmon. But the limit is fiercely contested by area ranchers, who note that it’s higher than the average historic flows in August since 1933.

The Shasta River Water Association petitioned in early August to continue diverting water to fill stock ponds for approximately 5,000 cattle plus calves and other assorted animals, according to a copy of the petition the water board shared with CalMatters. The water board said the request was still under review.

Lemos said the ranchers couldn’t afford to wait. “How long do they review it while the cows are dying of thirst?” Lemos said. “We didn’t just fly off the handle and say hey, we’re going to break the law and get into a big mess. We tried the other way first.”

In a letter dated August 17, the water association notified state regulators that they planned to violate the curtailment that day.

“We were in a critical situation. We have cattle out of water. . . . We have nowhere to move them. You can’t just get them in and sell them tomorrow,” Lemos said. “So that’s why we started diverting (water).”

The pumps rapidly sucked away river water, dropping flows by more than half in a day, state officials said.

“It’s an egregious and blatant disregard for the environment and for our regulations. . . . We are really, really interested in taking some swift action because we do take this so seriously,” said Julé Rizzardo, permitting and enforcement branch manager for the water board’s division of water rights.

The board is still investigating and determining whether to seek fines.

It took only a day after flows began dropping for the agency to notify the water association that they had violated their curtailment and could face fines of up to $500 per dayBut under state law, the ranchers had 20 days to respond and request a hearing. Only after the 20 days are up or a hearing has occurred can the water board adopt a final cease and desist order and raise the fines to $10,000 a day. By then, fall-run Chinook salmon would have been migrating through the river.

“It’s really unfortunate that we have those limitations,” Rizzardo said.

Felicia Marcus, a visiting fellow at Stanford’s water in the west program and former chair of the California water board, was more blunt: “In theory the water board has a lot of authority to deal with illegal diversions. In practice, they have to do it blindfolded and with one hand tied behind their back.”

California water law experts have been pushing for the water board to be granted more power to act swiftly.

Jennifer Harder, a law professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law urged California lawmakers to consider granting state water regulators the authority to temporarily pause water diversions and stem the damage in emergencies, while still allowing due process. Similar efforts have failed in the past.

“The bottom line is, we live in a very different world than we lived in 20, 30, 40 years ago in terms of the immediacy of some of these threats,” Harder said.

The stock pond on Jim Scala’s ranch in Montague has shrunk as the drought endures and water pumping is shut down. (Photo credit: Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters)

After receiving the board’s notices, Scala, Lemos, and the rest of the Shasta River Water Association kept pumping the river’s water for almost a week.

“Only regret I have is we didn’t start earlier,” Scala said on August 24, with irrigation water running across his land. “We’re going to lose the crop anyway. We’re going to have to pay a fine, probably.”

But later that day, Lemos said they shut off the pumps; they had accomplished what they’d set out to do, he said.

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