Author: Brandon Middleton
For years, ranchers in Northern California have relied upon water rights in order to provide an adequate supply of irrigation water for their crops and family businesses. Many of these ranchers hold what are called “pre-1914 water rights,” giving them historical and significant certainty that their water will be there ready to use when it is most needed.
Unfortunately, the California Department of Fish and Game is currently engaged in an attempt to effectively deprive the ranchers of their water rights. Based on an extreme interpretation of the state’s Fish and Game Code, the Department claims that folks in Siskiyou County need a permit to exercise their water rights.
The Department argues that the permitting scheme is necessary in order to protect Coho salmon, but it has attempted to harshly implement this scheme without due recognition of the Siskiyou County ranchers’ historical water rights, not to mention the Department’s ignorance of significant environmental stewardship efforts undertaken by water rights holders and ranchers throughout the years. In fact, after issuing threatening letters to ranchers in the Shasta and Scott River watersheds, one official was so bold as to clarify that the Department was not “going out there with billy clubs and mace trying to get this thing done”–not quite a reassuring recognition of water rights if you ask me.
The California Farm Bureau Federation has filed a lawsuit seeking a court declaration that the Department’s interpretation of the Fish and Game Code is unlawful. PLF, joined by Siskiyou County and the California Cattlemen’s Association, filed an amicus brief earlier this year (available here) in order to demonstrate just how extreme the Department’s views in this case are. The litigation is currently in a procedural stage, as the Department is seeking to have this case transferred away from Siskiyou County–where it really matters–to another permitting case in San Francisco County. But until a court rules on the merits of this case, the Department’s regulatory overreach remains unchecked.