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Farmers protest permitting program

Producer:‘You’re just voluntarily giving up your rights’

Tim Hearden
Capital Press

January 22, 2009

A group of farmers in rural Siskiyou County is urging fellow water-rights holders not to participate in a planned watershed-wide state permitting program.

The California Department of Fish and Game has been preparing the 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.

Some local farmers have expressed concern that the voluntary program may open the door to more strict state controls over adjudicated water rights, and that the stronger restrictions could eventually be implemented statewide.

Organic beef producer Craig Chenoweth, who has about 40 cows and calves on 456 acres in Scott Valley, said he and other farmers plan to withhold their participation to coax Fish and Game officials to come to the table and address their concerns.

"The whole idea is that we have to question their authority to do this," Chenoweth said. "They don't have the authority. They just call it a voluntary program, but at that point you're just voluntarily giving up your rights."

Incidental take permits insulate irrigators from hefty fines in the event their diversions unintentionally kill endangered or threatened fish.

The watershed-wide permit is meant to offer a cheaper and easier way of obtaining the license, officials say. The more people who sign up, the more there will be to share the cost of administering the project, including paperwork, monitoring and restoration efforts, officials have said.

The final environmental impact report for the program could be completed as early as March, paving the way for the program's implementation, Bob Williams, an environmental scientist for the Department of Fish and Game, has said. The program could apply to as many as 180 water rights holders in the Scott and Shasta valleys.

California Farm Bureau Federation environmental attorney Jack Rice has raised concerns about language in the proposal that suggests the state could require a streambed alteration permit for any water diversion. Until now, the permit has been required only when an irrigator physically changed the bank or channel.

Rice said that the Farm Bureau submitted comments on the project's environmental impact report and has been in ongoing discussions with Fish and Game.

"The thing is, nobody should sign up for the program if they're not comfortable with it," Rice said. "So if an individual is concerned about the program or particular terms in it, those need to be resolved before they participate. If they're not concerned, then obviously that's different."

Fish and Game officials have maintained they're not restricting water rights, although they are verifying that irrigators are taking only what they're legally entitled.

Williams said last week that the watershed-wide permit will merely save irrigators from having to obtain permits on their own.

"It's strictly a voluntary program," he said. "However, those people that don't sign up for it are still going to have to go the normal route of getting an incidental take permit."

Siskiyou Resource Conservation District manager Carolyn Pimentel said a minimum number of irrigators likely will need to sign up for the program for it to get off the ground, but she doesn't yet know how many.

She said the district is preparing to disseminate more information about the program to address landowners' questions.

"What the (incidental take permit) is is an alternative to people having to deal with this on their own," Pimentel said. "Mr. Chenoweth has been to our meetings, to RCD board meetings, and discussed this with the board. The board has expressed and tried to inform him of what this process is and . . . still he doesn't understand."

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

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