Farmers urged to fight attempts to curtail century-old water rights

jnsbranti@modbee.comJune 19, 2014 

They don’t know what’s going to be proposed, but they know they won’t like it.

That message was clear at Thursday night’s gathering to fire up opposition to any attempt by the state to curtail river diversions by those with century-old water rights.

Assorted state and local politicians attracted about 70 people to the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau office.

They offered dire warnings but virtually no details about what regulations are being considered or why. However, they insisted that what’s coming is a threat to farmers and the San Joaquin Valley’s economy.

At issue is a yet-to-be-revealed proposal that’s expected to be considered July 1 by California’s Water Resources Control Board.

Because of the drought, that agency may take action to regulate how much more water can be diverted from the state’s rivers. That may impact the water rights on which some Stanislaus irrigation districts and landowners depend.

Exactly what’s being considered isn’t known, but that didn’t really matter to the leaders of Thursday’s gathering. They don’t think the state has the right to do anything to infringe on water rights established before 1914.

“They’re using the drought as an excuse,” charged Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank. She accused the water board of trying to overreach its authority to establish a dangerous precedent that expands its control over California’s water resources.

“This is going to be litigious and bad for the state and our community,” agreed Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. He warned that if the state gets power over water rights, it would create a “damaging cascading effect on the entire Central Valley.”

Water board officials repeatedly have assured that’s not what’s being considered, but they weren’t invited to the gathering to explain. If they had been there, they’d have gotten an earful.

Modesto Irrigation District Director Paul Campbell called state water officials inept leaders who make appalling decisions. They misuse environmental laws and “they’re undermining the entire agricultural community.”

“They’re your enemy,” Campbell claimed. “It’s no-compromise time.”

Several speakers blasted the California Environmental Quality Act, blaming it for stopping the building of more water storage facilities – such as dams – in the state.

And there were dire predictions about what’s to come. “They are going after your groundwater,” insisted Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau. He sees any water board attempt to curtail senior water rights as just the first step, and he urged farmers to show up in droves at its next meeting. “This is one we fight for, boys.”

If the water board does attempt to curtail river diversions, Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell vowed to file a legal challenge and seek an injunction. But first, the board must make its proposal. Gray said that’s expected to come perhaps as early as today.

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