News Feature | August 14, 2015

California Proposes ‘Unprecedented' $1.5 Million Fine For Alleged Water Theft

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

California regulators are adopting something of a “no tolerance” policy for water theft.

“State officials have proposed fining a group of farmers an unprecedented $1.5 million for allegedly stealing water during the state's devastating drought, the first fine levied against an individual or district with senior rights that are more than a century old,” the Associated Press reported.

The drought that has dragged on for four years in California has sparked tough policies reining in water consumption by individual, industrial, and agricultural users. The fine aims to extend cutback policies to the notoriously hard-to-reach black market for water.

“The state is fighting off court challenges to its authority to control water use and doubts over whether it has the resources to enforce its orders,” the report said.

The fine was pinned on the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, a supplier for 160 farming families. The fine “signals what state officials said would be an aggressive enforcement action directed at water providers that defy cutbacks ordered by the State Water Resources Control Board. It is the first time the state has invoked tough financial penalties, adopted into law last year, that kick in during a drought emergency,” The New York Times reported.

What happens next: “The irrigation district has 20 days to request a hearing. Officials with the district, which last month filed a lawsuit challenging the authority of the state water board to cut its allocations, said Monday that they would ask for a hearing and challenge the fine in court,” the report said.

Russell Kagehiro, the president of the board of the district which refers to itself as B.B.I.D., explained his organization’s position.

“The state board is choosing to make an arbitrary example out of B.B.I.D. at the expense of our customers and the communities their hard work supports,” said Kagehiro. He continued that the district “will vigorously defend its right to water and due process. The landowners and others that rely upon B.B.I.D.’s senior water rights deserve no less.”

Regulators have struggled to find a way to take aim at water poachers who have found opportunities to exploit the dwindling water supply. In the past, getting caught by authorities did not ensure that water thieves would stop stealing.

"Those who do get caught taking water they have no right to often are allowed to keep taking it for years just by promising to obtain a permit," a report in The Sacramento Bee said. "Nearly 30,000 entities in the state hold valid water diversion permits, including individual property owners, farmers, and water utilities."