California water regulators are taking steps to stop illegal water diversions by irrigation districts with some of the oldest water rights.
The latest action proposes the largest penalty against a district since the drought began.
The State Water Resources Control Board claims the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District illegally diverted water from a pumping plant for 12 days after the board announced water cuts. It proposes a $1.5 million fine.
“Byron-Bethany was very publicly stating that it wasn’t going to stop diversions, which as you can imagine draws attention of the regulators,” says Andrew Tauriainen, an attorney with the Division of Water Rights.
Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, located near Tracy, is a senior water right holder that is also suing the state over water cuts.
The hefty proposed fine is the first since Gov. Jerry Brown gave the board the authority to issue new penalties in the drought.
“I do expect the board to take a very close look at all the circumstances surrounding this diversion and others that may come before it when it decides what size penalty to come up with," says Tauriainen. "So I wouldn’t be surprised if the board would come up with a much higher penalty than that proposed here.”
The maximum penalty for the violation would be $5.1 million. The new rules allow the board to assess $1,000 a day plus $2,500 for each acre-foot of water diverted in excess of a district's right.
Last week, the board issued the first cease-and-desist order in the drought to the West Side Irrigation District in Tracy. That district also took the state to court over water cuts.
In a statement, Byron-Bethany Irrigation District called the board's action a "brazen abuse of authority," and an "unprecedented retaliatory action" for its lawsuit. The BBID says it will request a hearing before the water board.