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Proposed permits heat up California water wars

by Tim Hearden, Capital Press 12/6/08

A proposal for irrigation in parts of remote Siskiyou County has statewide implications that have raised the ire of both farm groups and environmentalists.

Water permit proposal
The California Department of Fish and Game is taking public comments through 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9 on a pair of draft EIRs regarding watershed-wide streambed alteration and incidental take permits on the Scott and Shasta rivers.

-- Read the EIRs: The documents can be viewed at the DFG offices in Redding and Eureka, at local public libraries or online at www.dfg.ca.gov/news/pubnotice.

-- Comment: Written comments must be submitted by mail, fax or e-mail to Bob Williams, Department of Fish and Game, 601 Locust St., Redding, CA 96001. Fax: 530-225-2381. E-mail: scottdeir@dfg.ca.gov or shastadeir@dfg.ca.gov. Comments must be received or postmarked by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9.

-- For information: Call Bob Williams at 530-225-2300.
The Department of Fish and Game is preparing watershed-wide permits for streambed changes and incidental takings of threatened coho salmon along the Scott and Shasta rivers, which are key tributaries to the Klamath River.

Participation by landowners would be voluntary and those who signed up would be responsible for certain measures to protect salmon, such as adding fish screens. The program could eventually be implemented throughout California, said Bob Williams, an environmental scientist for the Department of Fish and Game based in Redding.

Incidental take permits insulate irrigators from having to pay thousands of dollars in fines if their diversions unintentionally kill imperiled fish. A watershed-wide license would encourage compliance by offering an easier and more affordable alternative than if a farmer were to seek a permit on his own, Williams said.

But this proposal's potential to spread elsewhere - and its influence on future water diversion policy in California - have made it the latest battleground in the state's ongoing water wars.

California Farm Bureau Federation environmental attorney Jack Rice isn't concerned so much about the streambed alteration permit itself, but rather the Department of Fish and Game's interpretation of who needs the permit.

It used to be that a streambed alteration agreement was only necessary if an irrigator physically changed the bank or channel, such as by dredging a temporary dam, he said. Now Fish and Game is asserting an irrigator may need the permit if he simply diverts water, Rice said.

"What it requires is payment of a fee and it would require certain terms and conditions," Rice said. "Basically what this (environmental impact report) says is that Fish and Game has the authority to impose whatever terms and conditions it finds reasonable on every water right in California."

Environmentalists assert the stricter mandate has always existed but was never fully enforced. For their part, they're concerned that groundwater pumping wouldn't be regulated under the new program and that the permits would be administered by local resource conservation districts.

"They (Fish and Game) would actually be ceding their authority as a regulator to the resource conservation districts," said Felice Pace, a longtime environmental activist who lives in Klamath. "Is that even legal, to take the regulatory authority you have and constantly give that to another entity that's appointed by the Board of Supervisors that tends to be farmer-friendly?

"There's a place for regulation and a place for restoration and conservation," Pace said. "When you have regulatory laws that have to be enforced, those should be enforced by the state."

A 60-day comment period on a pair of draft environmental impact reports on the proposed permits is set to expire Tuesday, Dec. 9. The program, which could apply to as many as 180 water rights holders in the Scott and Shasta valleys, could be approved as early as March, Williams said.

The permits are part of a fish-recovery effort developed when coho salmon north of San Francisco were listed as threatened in 2005. As a result of the listing, Fish and Game has been "looking at diversions throughout our region," Williams said.

But requiring a streambed alteration permit for a diversion isn't new for the agency, he said.

"We're not doing anything with regard to water rights," Williams said. "Water rights are what they are.... One of the things we are doing is verifying that they're taking the amount they're legally entitled to."

However, many of the roughly 50 farmers and ranchers who attended an informational meeting in Yreka on Tuesday, Dec. 2, suspected otherwise. Siskiyou County Farm Bureau board member Jeff Fowel rattled off dozens of perceived problems with the EIRs, including that they didn't consider the economic impacts from anticipated decreases in water diversions.

One attendee, organic beef producer Craig Chenoweth, has about 40 cows and calves on 456 acres in Scott Valley. He said the permit program would have little if any impact on his own operation, but he thinks the proposal is a form of "tyranny."

"It's about them trying to control us," Chenoweth said. "What Fish and Game wants is control of water on private land.... They want us to pay for it, too."

Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: thearden@capitalpress.com.


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