Politics & Government

California drought agency goes after another farm district

California drought regulators went on the offensive against another agricultural irrigation district Monday, proposing a $1.55 million fine against a Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta-area agency for allegedly diverting water illegally over a two-week period.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s complaint against the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District in Byron, Calif., is the second charge levied in less than a week against an agricultural district, and the first against a senior water-rights holder.

The complaint is likely to ratchet up the friction between the state and California farmers dealing with diminished supplies in the fourth summer of drought. Already the board has officially notified thousands of irrigation districts they don’t have surface water available to them.

Those notices have prompted roughly a dozen districts to sue the board, challenging the state’s authority and its methods of policing California’s complex water rights regimen.

Two of the suits have been filed by districts that have now been hit with charges of taking water illegally: the West Side Irrigation District, based in Tracy, Calif., and Byron-Bethany. Both have the right to challenge the complaints at an administrative hearing.

The West Side farmers won a closely-watched preliminary victory July 10, when a judge said they hadn’t been given a proper chance to defend themselves and their water rights. But the water board hasn’t backed down. Although it reworded the notification letters in an effort to comply with the judge’s order, it then proceeded to start issuing complaints over alleged illegal diversions.

In Byron-Bethany’s case, the state said it could impose a fine of up to $5.18 million. It reduced it to $1.55 million in part because the district delivers water to assorted power plants “that may be deemed critical energy suppliers,” and the community of Mountain House, a Tracy suburb that until recently depended completely on Byron-Bethany for its water.

To keep water flowing to its 12,000-plus residents, Mountain House has made a deal to buy six months worth of water from a neighboring district. Mountain House is being developed by CalPERS, which has invested more than $1 billion in the community.

Byron-Bethany was among dozens of senior rights holders notified June 12 they could no longer divert surface water. It was the first time since 1977 that Calfornia had curtailed senior rights, which pre-date the origin of the system the Legislature put into place in 1914.

Despite the June 12 notice, the state says Byron-Bethany pulled a total of 2,067 acre-feet of water over the next 13 days from an intake channel at the state-run Banks pumping station near Tracy, which delivers water to farms and cities south of the Delta. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.

The district said it will fight the charge. “The state board is choosing to make an arbitrary example out of (Byron-Bethany) at the expense of our customers and the communities their hard work supports,” said district president Russell Kagehiro in a prepared statement. The district’s lawyer, Daniel Kelly, said he doubts the state board can give Byron-Bethany an impartial hearing on the case.

West Side, a small agricultural district in the Delta, said it was targeted by the state board as retaliation for its lawsuit. State officials denied singling anyone out and have vowed to file charges against others in the coming weeks.