Friday, 07 Oct 2022

Ranchers’ rebellion: the Californians breaking water rules in a punishing drought

Ranchers’ rebellion: the Californians breaking water rules in a punishing drought


Ranchers’ rebellion: the Californians breaking water rules in a punishing drought

Before Rick Lemos and the other directors of the Shasta River Water Association broke the law, they made a decision that under most circumstances might be considered unusual: they sent a letter to authorities spelling out exactly what they intended to do.

The California regulation they would defy was an emergency order in response to the state's punishing drought, in effect forbidding ranchers and farmers in this stretch of land near the Oregon border from diverting water from the Shasta River as they had done for more than a century.

"The Curtailment has dried the Shasta Valley to the point of endangerment to health and life of the public and residents who live here, with apparent disregard to the livestock and pet health within this watershed," the association's August letter to the state water board read. "Simply put, the lack of water is drying up livestock feed and forcing livestock to be sold because they can no longer withstand the poor conditions."

The association, the letter said, would turn on their pumps.

The ranchers collected water for a week, risking fines of up to $500 a day. With wells going dry and ponds emptying, they viewed the penalties for taking water as a small tradeoff to protect their animals and livelihoods. "We decided to bite the bullet. We got no other water source," Lemos, 61, said.

But regulators, environmental groups and Indigenous nations in the region say the diversions came at a much greater cost: a risk to fish, including protected salmon species, for whom the river is a crucial habitat.

And they warn the conflict between the ranchers and the state could have consequences far beyond this remote corner of California, potentially serving as a case study for how the state will enforce hard-to-swallow regulations during the climate crisis.

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