Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Did the California DFG threaten farmers?

There appears to be a question in some people's minds as to whether California Department of Fish and Game officials actually threatened farmers and ranchers in the Scott and Shasta valleys with prosecution, or whether the landowners merely "claimed" they were threatened. Here's what we reported on May 13, 2010:

Those who don't sign up -- or don't obtain permits on their own later -- could expect inspections by game wardens and face civil and criminal penalties of up to $25,000 per violation and up to six months in jail, said Mark Stopher, the DFG's acting regional manager in Redding, Calif.

"We do have to have a point where we say one way or the another, they need to be compliant with the law," Stopher said. "We can't just let it be open for them to choose ... when they want to comply with the law."

Stopher said he sent a "rather stern letter" to ranchers in April as the irrigation season was beginning to "lay out their options." [...]

Stopher said for everyone who's complaining about the state's requiring the permits, there's an equal number of people impatient with the pace of the state's enforcement efforts.

"If telling people that they actually do have to comply with state law is intimidation, I can't help that," he said. "What we have done is frankly given people a five-year grace period since coho salmon were listed to comply with state law.

"We didn't have to develop this (watershed-wide permit), but we did," he said.

In my interview with him in May, Stopher said agricultural users in the two valleys are "currently out of compliance with state law," adding that Fish and Game Code section 1602 requires landowners to notify the DFG if they're making a substantial diversion from a river or stream.

"Nobody in either valley has agreed with us to substantially divert flow yet they're doing it already," he said. He added later, "The question of whether somebody is diverting in accordance with a water right is moot at this point." Then later, he said there's a "route we don't want to minimize, and that's the enforcement route."

Talk of enforcement actions didn't end when Stopher was replaced by Neil Manji, the DFG's current regional manager in Redding. As we reported on Sept. 9:

Some ranchers who signed up for the blanket permits are being asked to cut back on their irrigation, said Neil Manji, the DFG's regional manager based in Redding.

Holdouts were sent new letters in August again warning them of potential penalties, and wardens have visited the properties of some of the ranchers, he said.

"At this time we're not going out there with billy clubs and mace trying to get this thing done," Manji said. "We're trying to get as many ... permits issued to show the community up there that it's not really pulling teeth, it's just a nice teeth cleaning. I think everybody knows a lot of folks are afraid to go to the dentist to begin with."

Fallout over the threats of penalties prompted complaints from Northern California's state Assemblyman Jim Nielsen and later from Sen. Doug LaMalfa, and it ultimately moved Manji to try to change the department's approach with the landowners.

What we don't know is how heated some wardens' conversations with individual landowners may have become. But when it comes to its stance on enforcement, the DFG as a whole has left little ambiguity.

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