California court ruling bolsters water rights
In an important decision that protects private water rights while maintaining environmental protections, a Siskiyou County Superior Court judge ruled that a state agency had overstepped its authority in trying to regulate farmers’ water use.
The ruling by Judge Karen L. Dixon determined that the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) had exceeded its authority by requiring farmers and ranchers to obtain a permit from DFG before they irrigate their crops. The Siskiyou County Farm Bureau filed suit against DFG last year on behalf of members who farm along the Scott and Shasta rivers.
“This ruling establishes an important, statewide precedent,” Siskiyou County Farm Bureau President Jeff Fowle said. “There is no doubt that if DFG had been able to expand its authority here, it would have tried to regulate water rights elsewhere in the state. This decision reaffirms that water rights are administered by the courts and State Water Resources Control Board. Now, we can turn our attention to finding collaborative ways to improve conditions for fish while maintaining the sustainability of our farms and ranches.”
The case centered on Section 1602 of the Fish and Game Code, which requires individuals to notify DFG and potentially obtain a Lake and Streambed Alteration Agreement before conducting certain activities that alter a streambed. Permits have been required under the section for gravel mining, construction of push-up dams and other projects that physically alter streambeds—but DFG began notifying landowners along the Scott and Shasta that they would need to obtain permits simply to open an existing headgate or activate an existing pump in
order to irrigate their crops.
There are 400-600 property owners with rights to water from the Shasta and Scott rivers, according to Fowle.
In its lawsuit, the county Farm Bureau said the requirement would have been a “fundamental change” in the application of the code that would have jeopardized both water rights and property rights for farmers and ranchers.
“We understand that DFG wants to protect salmon in the rivers, but it has many other ways to do that already,” said Rex Houghton, the immediate past president of the county Farm Bureau. “Farmers will continue to work collaboratively with the agency to improve conditions for fish. The outcome does not change the notification requirement for activity that physically alters a streambed, but it is important to establish that DFG can’t require a permit for farmers simply to exercise their water rights.”
Because of the statewide implications of the case, the Siskiyou County Farm Bureau received support for the lawsuit from the California Farm Bureau Federation and county Farm Bureaus throughout the state.
Attorney Darrin Mercier of Yreka argued the case on behalf of the county Farm Bureau.
Local tribes and environmental groups believe the Shasta and Scott river water users have been taking too much water from the streams, putting the salmon population in danger. According to Karuk Tribe members, the DFG permits are needed because there is no plan to prevent people from taking more than their allotment.
Whether or not DFG will appeal remains to be seen, as they had not commented on the ruling by press date. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor