BBefore breaking the law, Rick Lemos and the other directors of the Shasta River Water Association made a decision that would be considered unusual under most circumstances: they sent a letter to authorities outlining exactly what they intended to do. to do.
The California regulations they would defy were an emergency order in response to the state’s punitive drought, which effectively banned farmers and ranchers in this tract of land near the Oregon border from diverting water from the Shasta River as they do. had done for over a century.
“The containment has dried up the Shasta Valley to the point of endangering the health and life of the public and residents who live here, with clear disregard for the health of livestock and pets in this watershed,” the association wrote in August. to the state water board. read. “Simply put, the lack of water dries up fodder and forces livestock to sell because it can no longer withstand the bad conditions.”
The association, the letter said, would turn on their pumps.
The farmers collected water for a week and risked fines of up to $500 a day. With wells running dry and ponds draining, they viewed the penalties for taking water as a small trade-off to protect their animals and livelihoods. “We’ve decided to tie the knot. We have no other water source,” said Lemos, 61.
But regulators, environmental groups and indigenous countries in the region say the diversions came at a much higher cost: a risk to fish, including protected salmon species, for whom the river is a critical habitat.
And they warn that the conflict between ranchers and the state could have repercussions far beyond this corner of California, potentially serving as a case study for how the state will enforce hard-to-swallow regulations during the climate crisis.
“What we’re seeing is the kind of response we’re going to get to climate change when it gets in the laps of people and they’re individually faced with consequences they don’t like,” said David Webb of the Friends of the Shasta River, an environmental group that works. watching the river. “We will see people go their own way and I find that worrying.”
The Battle of Ranchers
Siskiyou province has been the scene of some tense conflicts over water in recent years. At the heart of the most recent battle is the Shasta River, a tributary of the Klamath River.
The river flows through glaciers on Mount Shasta, absorbing minerals and nutrients and creating an “ecological powerhouse” that allows fish to grow faster, stronger and more resilient than elsewhere, said Ann Willis, senior staff researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Science.
The Shasta has long played a central role in the cultures of the Yurok and Karuk peoples, the two largest tribes in California, who have lived on the river’s bounty for millennia.
For more than a century, the river has also been vital to agriculture and today it largely serves as an irrigation channel for farmers and ranchers. Access is usually privately owned, such as the Shasta River Water Association.
Even in wet years, the river serves more users than it can support, Webb said, with the Friends of the Shasta River. But with the American west going through its driest period in 1,200 years and wildfires raging across the region, the water system is coming under increasing pressure.
In response to what scientists have called a “worst-case scenario,” the California governor declared a drought emergency in Siskiyou County and dozens of others last year. State authorities have passed regulations requiring the Shasta to have a minimum flow of 50 cubic feet per second during the summer months to aid in fish survival and migration and allowable containments.
For months, the Shasta River Water Association, which represents more than 100 farms and ranches in the Shasta Valley, complied with the state’s orders.
But in mid-July, the association faced its first full curtailment, a devastating blow, Lemos said.
“We have always followed the rules. We always have. I understand the river and what is going on and I try to comply with what we are expected to obey,” he said.
The family of Lemos has had a ranch in Siskiyou province since 1904. Animal husbandry in the region has always had its challenges, but the last few years have been unlike anything he’s ever experienced, he said: “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe it’s as dry as it is.”
The ranchers had survived, Lemos said, but without water, the situation soon became impossible. People sold their livestock and spent tens of thousands of dollars on hay and water, he said. Lemos lost a cow after it got stuck in the mud of a dried-up pond and had to be euthanized.
Justin Sandahl, who owns an organic dairy in the area and also serves on the board of the water association, said he spent nearly four times as much on hay for his cows as usual. With increased costs, coupled with low milk prices, the outlook for his family business was bleak, he said: “It’s not something a man likes to brag about. It’s not good at all.”
The association argued that the new rules were too strict and that the river did not require flows at the level mandated by the state, and, along with other irrigation districts, commissioned a study to support their findings. They sent the result to regulators but never heard back, Lemos said. The state water board said the regulatory development team “considered all stakeholder input” before the board passed the emergency ordinances.
After a lengthy consultation with shareholders, the association decided to resume the diversions.
“We had no other way to fight back. Our cows are our factory. Next year when our cows are gone, we have nothing to sell,” says Lemos.
Falling water levels
The first day of diversions caused the flow in the river to drop by more than half.
The Yurok and Karuk were immediately concerned about the dramatic drop in water levels, which came near the salmon’s fall migration and weeks after a wildfire killed tens of thousands of fish along a stretch of the Klamath River.
“We were trying to recover from that event and before you know it these guys are illegally sucking water from the river. These guys want to act like it’s the old west,” said Craig Tucker, advisor to the Karuk tribe. “They got a lot of water from the river.”
The Shasta River is one of the major tributaries of the Klamath, Tucker said, and the tribe feared that a sudden drop in water levels would strand young fish along the banks and not provide enough water for fish climbing into the upper Shasta to spawn.
The fish are already endangered by dams, drained streams and landscape degradation caused by wildfires, Tucker said, “These fish are really facing death from 1,000 cuts.”
“We realize it is difficult. This is a California reality and really the whole west is struggling to come to terms with… They can’t just decide the law doesn’t apply to them,” he added.
Authorities are still trying to determine the impact of the association’s actions. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are investigating the potential damage from the diversions, including effects on water quality and quantity.
“Depleting river flow so quickly and at this magnitude endangers sensitive coho and Chinook populations,” the state water board said.
Willis, the UC Davis researcher, said any sudden removal of water from the river was problematic. However, the timing of the diversions meant that there was likely minimal risk to coho salmon and the fall-out Chinook, although possibly some effect on the steelhead. Even before that time, the temperature in the water was already too warm for cold-water species, she notes.
“If something is already inhospitable, making it a little more inhospitable is not the urgent red flag some people may have thought,” she said.
Lemos said he does not believe the diversions harmed fish and that the association did not drain the river.
‘This is what happens when people are desperate’
The state water board sent ranchers a draft ceasefire letter two days after the association began drawing water from the river, but the farmers continued to divert the water for several more days. The case highlights the shortcomings of the state’s enforcement strategy, according to observers.
“I don’t know how you can keep rational people from risking a $500 fine if it means keeping their livestock alive,” said Karrigan Bork, a law professor at UC Davis. “The greatest impact of this action is that the decision to intentionally violate the orders of the board of directors sets a terrible precedent, regardless of biological damage.”
Webb said other people in the area were also illegally taking water and argued the diversions showed the need for more laws: “What we’re seeing is the result of [a] decades of lack of effort to enforce the laws we have and a lack of enforceable laws designed in a state with a lot of agriculture that doesn’t want to hear about it.”
Nevertheless, he regretted the position in which the association finds itself. “The sad truth is that the irrigation district that has broken ranks is the one that has tried hardest to find ways to reduce their water consumption when the fish needed it most,” he said. “They would often reduce their water consumption. I admired them for what they were trying to do.”
As drought ravages the region, resistance has erupted elsewhere in the river basin. Oregon’s Klamath Irrigation District said in late August it would continue to supply water to farmers there in violation of federal government orders, but it backfired later.
The Shasta River Water Association is in talks with regulators but doesn’t yet know what impact it will face, Lemos said.
The enforcement team of the water board says it has not imposed a fine, but has the freedom to do so, and that the investigation is continuing.
If the study found that damage to fish was minimal, Willis suggested regulators look at where they can provide flexibility to farmers in the area.
“What we see here is what happens when people start to feel desperate. I think it’s unfair that there was no way or opportunity to find a workable solution that would simultaneously support both the farming community and conservation goals without such action,” she said.
The water the ranchers took from the river brought some relief, Lemos said, at least for now. Like many others in the area, he has sold dozens of cows in recent months and plans to sell the majority. But there is also something else that belongs to those cows: a way of life. “I think it’s almost done,” he said.
“If I have to sell all my cows, I’ll go elsewhere and do something else. I never thought I’d feel this way, now I do,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”