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Farmers freak over water reporting requirements

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A wave of confusion and fear swept through the ranks of local farmers gathered at the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau June 21 as they heard something they dreaded: A new water diversion law comes into effect July 1. Few of them had heard about the law until just before the meeting and many were visibly upset by the new reporting requirements.

“We’re getting water-boarded,” said a tall farmer at the meeting dressed in a tall Stetson, well-worn shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He was referring to the State Water Resources Control Board, the arm of the Sacramento government that regulates the use of water in California.

The new law requires that landowners who divert water from a creek, river, or pump from a subterranean stream must report it to the State Water Board. A detailed form must be filled out for each diversion, listing in precise amounts both the amount of water that can and actually is used. The law is so broad that wells located near a stream or river are likely to be considered as surface water and therefore, must be registered. 

The strengthening of the law comes from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger making a deal with the legislature trying to save the Sacramento Delta from ecological doom. The Delta is gradually running dry after decades of water-siphoning by farmers and other water hungry concerns.

Many local farmers say trouble comes when laws designed for the Delta are applied to such a relatively arid region as central California. In the rainy season, many streams and riverbeds emerge for a few days or weeks a year. If any such rarely available water is diverted or gathered, it too must be reported.

The basic requirement has been on the books since 1965 but recent legislation has put teeth in reporting requirements—there had never been an enforcement mechanism until now. Almost all of the farmers present at one of the meetings indicated they had never registered their water diversions.

Property owners who fail to file reports on their use of water as required by the law face an initial $1,000 fine and $500-a-day fines after a 30-day grace period.

Many farmers at the meeting worried that the reporting requirements were just the first step in cataloging all water diversions in the state so farmers could later be taxed for water use. Starting Jan. 1, 2012 the measurements of how much water is diverted must be made “using best available technologies and best professional practices.” Many farmers fear satellite technology will one day allow the water board in Sacramento to monitor exactly how much water is being used on every farm and ranch in California.

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