Holding Water Thieves Accountable Is Critical In Times of Drought

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Every day, the media is filled with new stories about California’s historic drought – cities facing the imminent threat of no drinking water; ranchers scrambling to feed herds grazing on brown stubble; migrating birds searching in vain for wetlands along the Pacific Flyway; and fish eggs drying out by the thousands on desiccated river banks. There is no question that the drought is imposing hardships on cities, farms and the environment, and that different solutions may be called for to address those hardships. But there is one obvious solution that benefits everyone and that we should all be able to agree on:  nobody should be allowed to steal water that is not rightfully theirs in times of drought.       

That’s why it is especially perplexing that a group of California legislators is objecting to clamping down on water thieves during the drought in this February 24, 2014 letter sent to Governor Brown. Water theft is a big problem in parts of the State. Recognizing the significant problems caused by illegal water diversions associated just with marijuana cultivation in California, the California Farm Bureau Federation recently asked its national affiliate to tackle the issue. Similarly, this story reports that state Fish and Wildlife wardens discovered multiple illegal water diversions on the Trinity River in just one sweep, featuring hundreds of feet of black PVC snaking through wooden boxes and diesel pumps, and concrete dams blocking tributaries. Here’s a photo of an illegal diversion taken by Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel in the South Fork Eel watershed, on a tributary that has steelhead trout, which need cold, clean flows to survive:

Right now, the State Water Board has limited authority to punish water thieves in times of drought. The Board can only issue fines of a maximum of $500 per day, which is not much of a deterrent when water is scarce and its value sky-high, as in times of drought. As part of the package of urgency drought legislation put forward by Governor Brown and legislative leaders, the Board would have authority to issue higher penalties for violating water rights during a drought, and could issue cease and desist orders to stop people from stealing water that belongs to another.

NRDC strongly supports the urgency drought legislation that state leaders have pulled together, including its modest improvements to State Board enforcement authority in times of drought. We should all be able to support improving our ability to prevent water theft when there is so little water to go around. At the very least, a handful of nay-sayers should not be permitted to scuttle this important package of drought relief measures that provides food and housing assistance to displaced farmworkers, emergency drinking water supplies, and substantial investment in local water self-reliance.