California Proposes First Fine for Alleged Improper Diversions

By Carolyn Whetzel

July 20 — California water officials proposed a $1.5 million penalty against Byron-Bethany Irrigation District for alleged unauthorized diversions of surface waters.

The July 20 administrative civil complaint is the first such enforcement action brought against a senior water rights holder for taking water in 2015, after being notified that because of drought conditions, insufficient supplies are available for all water rights holders.

Last week, the State Water Resources Control Board issued two draft cease and desist orders against West Side Irrigation District, which holds junior water rights, and a Trinity County property owner with riparian rights for alleged illegal diversions.

In a July 20 conference call with reporters, state water board officials said investigations continue into these cases and other allegations of unauthorized water use. Additional enforcement actions are expected in the coming weeks and months, officials said.

Along with being the administrative civil action against a senior water rights holder, the proposed fine is the first penalty to reflect the stricter fines allowed under legislation enacted in 2014 to help the state enforce water laws during the prolonged drought.

Diverting Water

The Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which serves mostly farmers, allegedly diverted about 2,067 acre feet of water from the intake channel at the Banks Pumping Plant in Contra Costa County, over 13 days, beginning on June 13, according to the state water board.

After receiving the June 12 notice from the state that water was unavailable, the irrigation district located near Tracy said it would continue to divert water.

The irrigation district could not be reached for comment on the proposed penalty.

Byron-Bethany is among several Central Valley water districts that have sued the state water board challenging its authority to enforce the 9,300 notices sent to junior and water rights holders in May and June.

On July 10, a state court issued a temporary restraining order blocking the State Water Resources Control Board from enforcing the notices, finding they violated water rights holders due process rights to an administrative hearing. The state water board recently partially rescinded and reissued revised notices to remove language the court had deemed “coercive in nature”.

The court, however, said the state water board has authority to enforce water laws, as long as the action is not based on the May and June “coercive” notices.

State law provides the water board with significant authority to enforce unauthorized diversions, Andrew Tauriainen, the prosecuting attorney with the board's Division of Water Rights, told reporters.

Like with the two prior enforcement actions, Byron-Bethany has 20 days to request a hearing before the state water board, Tauriainen said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carolyn Whetzel in Los Angeles at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at