SACRAMENTO (CN) – California’s water regulator slapped a $1.5 million penalty on a water district for unauthorized water diversions, the largest civil drought penalty it’s ever proposed.
The Byron-Bethany Irrigation District in Central California is the first senior water-rights holder to receive an administrative fine from the State Water Resources Control Board in 2015. The district and has 20 days to ask the regulator for a hearing regarding the fine.
The complaint charges the district with continuing to divert water for over two weeks in June after it was ordered to stop by the water board.
Gov. Jerry Brown authorized harsher fines against water-rights holders in 2014 in response to the state’s ongoing drought. Monday’s fine is the first under the new program, said Andrew Tauriainen, attorney for the water board.
“[The Legislature] provided additional penalties for drought last year, which has been very helpful; it allows for bigger threat of these monetary penalties for unauthorized diversions,” Tauriainen said during a media call.
Tauriainen said the fine was a result of an in-person inspection and that the state expects to conduct 1,000 inspections on water-rights holders and districts this year.
The water board is evaluating the results of approximately 950 inspections from last year and because there is no statute of limitations, can still levy fines for 2014 violations.
While lawmakers and officials mold and adapt California’s water policy, farmers and water districts continue to take the state to court. In the last two months, the water board has been sued in five different courts and its authority to levy fines continues to be challenged.
Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, based in Tracy, is part of one such lawsuit filed June 26 in Contra Costa County.
The water district says the state hasn’t proved it has the jurisdiction to enforce or issue water curtailment notices and that its order will “strangle family farms, kill vital crops, compromise thousands of livestock, raise consumer prices, destroy thousands of jobs and ultimately eliminate the ability to farm the land.”
Earlier this month, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the regulator from enforcing fines against several Central Valley farmers and water agencies.
Byron-Bethany Irrigation District said in a statement the water board is making an “arbitrary example” of it and that it will “vigorously defend its rights to water and due process.”
But doing so could lead to a larger fine from the water board, Tauriainen said.
“The state board has discretion to issue a penalty of any size it sees fit, or no penalty, up to and including the statutory maximum of $5 million,” Tauriainen said. “This is the first case of its kind that will likely go to the board.”
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