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Local ranchers worry as Siskiyou County water diversion suits head to Bay Area

By Ryan Sabalow, Redding Record-Searchlight October 17, 2010
Fearing that restrictions farther north soon may apply all over the state, Shasta County’s farmers and ranchers are closely watching a pair of pending lawsuits over agricultural water diversions in Siskiyou County.

Last fall, fishing groups and environmentalists sued the Department of Fish and Game, alleging the state agency was violating environmental laws by allowing agricultural users to pull too much water from the Scott and Shasta rivers.

Led by Klamath Riverkeeper, an Orleans-based environmental group, the suit contends that the drought-prone streams were being sucked dry by farmers, choking off water to threatened coho salmon.

The farmers, led by the California Farm Bureau Federation, filed a lawsuit this year in response. The farmers’ lawsuit alleges the DFG doesn’t have authority over long-standing water rights.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge recently ordered the two lawsuits combined and the Farm Bureau lawsuit moved from Siskiyou to San Francisco. Farm Bureau attorney Jack Rice said he appealed the move last week.

The Farm Bureau’s lawsuit challenges the state agency’s recently enacted policy of requiring farmers and ranchers on the Scott and Shasta rivers to get streambed diversion or “incidental take” permits to move stream water into canals, ponds and ditches in order to keep ranchers from inadvertently harming salmon. The ranchers and their families have, in many cases, been using the same irrigation systems in the same way for more than 100 years.

Shasta County’s ranchers say they’re worried that should the Farm Bureau’s lawsuit be shot down, the state may start requiring similar permits elsewhere.

“(The DFG) started up there because it looked like an easy hit,” said Shannon Wooten, a Palo Cedro beekeeper and rancher. “To put it in harsh terms, I think they thought they were dealing with a bunch of dumb farmers. ... Little did they know that the Farm Bureau is pretty strong up there.”

Wooten is especially concerned.

His family has been pulling seasonal water out of Cow Creek through a concrete ditch that’s been there since the 1870s. Salmon spawn in the stream, and Wooten said he’s worried the state may see his water diversions as a threat to the fish, although he is adamant they’re not.

The Farm Bureau’s lawyers contend that the DFG is requiring Siskiyou County farmers to get diversion permits they’ve never needed before.

The lawyers say the permits are similar to what a county road department would need during a bridge construction project if road crews needed to temporarily divert a creek around the building site.

Siskiyou County farmers say they’ve already been told by game wardens or in warning letters that they could be jailed or fined if they don’t get one of the permits.

The environmentalists’ lawsuit claims the state never properly enforced the state’s environmental quality laws when it comes to water diversions, and fish have suffered as a result.

This winter, Klamath Riverkeeper pointed to a DFG report that found that just nine coho, all male, returned to spawn in the Shasta River the fall of 2009.

The group contends that if farmers continue to use from the streams, low flows, warm temperatures and “cattle trampling” at the coho’s sole remaining spawning beds may lead to the extinction of the entire Shasta run.

“We need public scrutiny and environmental enforcement to begin with the irrigation season,” Erica Terence, a Klamath Riverkeeper spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“We can’t afford to lose an inch or we’ll lose coho entirely.”

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