Proposed permits heat up California water wars
A proposal for
irrigation in parts of remote Siskiyou County has statewide
implications that have raised the ire of both farm groups and
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
-- Read the EIRs: The documents can be viewed at the DFG
offices in Redding and Eureka, at local public libraries
or online at
-- 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:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments must be received or
postmarked by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9.
-- For information: Call Bob Williams at 530-225-2300.
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.
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
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
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
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: