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

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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.

close up of fish
Juvenile Chinook salmon swim in Siskiyou county. Photograph: Travis VanZant/AP

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.

“What we’re seeing is the sort of response we’re going to get to climate change when it lands in people’s laps and they are individually faced with consequences they don’t like,” said David Webb with the Friends of the Shasta River, an environmental group that monitors the river. “We’ll see people going their own way and I think that’s worrisome.”

Ranchers’ struggle

Siskiyou county has been the site of a number of tense conflicts over water in the last few years. At the heart of the most recent battle is the Shasta River, a tributary to the Klamath River.

The river flows through glaciers on Mount Shasta, soaking up minerals and nutrients and creating an “ecological powerhouse” that allows fish to grow faster, stronger and more resilient than they do elsewhere, said Ann Willis, a senior staff researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Science.

Related: Megadrought in the American south-west: a climate disaster unseen in 1,200 years

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 subsisted on the bounty of the river for millennia.

For more than a century, the river has also been vital to agriculture, and today it largely serves as an irrigation conduit for farmers and ranchers. Access is mostly in private hands, such as the Shasta River Water Association.

Even in wet years, the river serves more users than it can support, said Webb, with the Friends of the Shasta River. But as the American west endures its driest period in 1,200 years and wildfires have torn through the region, the water system is increasingly under pressure.

In response to what scientists have called a “worst-case scenario”, California’s governor last year declared a drought emergency in Siskiyou county, and dozens of others. State authorities adopted rules requiring the Shasta have minimum flows of 50 cubic feet per second in the summer months to aid in the survival and migration of fish and authorized curtailments.

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 for the first time faced a complete curtailment, a devastating blow, Lemos said.

overhead view of river
The Shasta is a tributary to the Klamath River, above. Photograph: Travis VanZant/AP

“We followed the rules all along. We always have. I understand the river and what’s going on and I try to comply with what we’re supposed to comply with,” he said.

Lemos’s family has had a ranch in Siskiyou county since 1904. Ranching 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 been the worst I’ve ever seen it. I can’t believe it’s as dry as it is.”

The ranchers had been getting by, Lemos said, but with no water the situation quickly became impossible. People were selling their cattle and spending 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-out pond and had to be put down.

Justin Sandahl, who owns an organic dairy in the area and also serves on the water association board, said he was spending nearly four times as much on hay for his cows as he normally would. With the increased costs, coupled with low milk prices, the outlook for his family business was dire, he said: “It’s not something a guy likes to brag about. It’s not good at all.”

The association argued the new rules were too strict and that the river didn’t need flows at the level mandated by the state, joining with other irrigation districts to commission a study that supported their findings. They sent the result to regulators, but never heard back, Lemos said. The state water board said its regulation development team “considered all input from stakeholders” before the board adopted the emergency regulations.

After a lengthy meeting with shareholders, the association decided to resume diversions.

“We had no other way to fight back. Our cows are our factory. We have nothing to sell next year when our cows are gone,” Lemos said.

Plunging water levels

The first day of diversions caused flows 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 fall salmon migration and weeks after a wildfire led to the deaths of tens of thousands of fish along a stretch of the Klamath River.

“We were trying to recover from that event and next thing you know these guys are sucking water out of the river illegally. These guys want to behave like it’s the old west,” said Craig Tucker, a consultant for the Karuk Tribe. “They took a lot of water out of the river.”

The Shasta River is among the most important tributaries to the Klamath, Tucker said, and the tribe feared a sudden drop in water levels would strand juvenile fish along the banks and not provide enough water for fish climbing into the Shasta’s upper reaches to spawn.

The fish are already imperiled by dams, dewatered streams and landscape degradation caused by forest fires, Tucker said: “These fish really do face death by 1,000 cuts.”

“We appreciate that it’s hard. This a reality of California and really the entire 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 establish the impact of the association’s moves. The California department of fish and wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division are investigating the potential harm of the diversions, including effects on water quality and quantity.

“Depleting river flow this quickly and at this magnitude imperils sensitive fall run 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. The timing of the diversions, however, meant there was probably minimal risk to coho salmon and fall-run Chinook, though possibly some effect on steelhead. Even before then, the temperature in the water was already too warm for cold water species, she points out.

“When something is already inhospitable, just making it slightly more inhospitable is not kind of the urgent red flag that some people might have thought it was,” she said.

Lemos said that he didn’t believe the diversions harmed fish, and that the association did not drain the river.

‘This is what happens when people feel desperate’

The state water board sent the ranchers a draft cease-and-desist letter two days after the association began taking water from the river, but the ranchers continued diverting water for several more days. The case, observers say, highlights the shortcomings of the state’s enforcement strategy.

“I’m not sure how you keep rational folks from risking a $500 fine if it means keeping their cattle alive,” said Karrigan Bork, a law professor at UC Davis. “The biggest impact of this action is the decision to kind of willfully violate the orders from the board sets a terrible precedent, regardless of the 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 consequence of [a] decades-long lack of effort to enforce the laws we’ve got and a lack of enforceable laws designed in a state that has a lot of agriculture that doesn’t want to hear about it.”

Still, he lamented the position the association finds itself in. “The sad truth is the irrigation district that has broken ranks is the one that has tried the hardest to find ways to reduce their water usage when the fish needed it the very most,” he said. “They would frequently reduce their water usage. I admired them for what they were trying to do.”

As drought grips the region, defiance has emerged elsewhere in the basin. The Klamath Irrigation District in Oregon said in late August it would continue water deliveries to farmers there in violation of the federal government’s orders, but it later backtracked.

The Shasta River Water Association has been in talks with regulators, but it does not yet know what consequences it will face, Lemos said.

The state water board enforcement team said it had not issued a penalty, but had the discretion to do so, and that the investigation continued.

If the investigation shows that harm to fish was minimal, Willis suggested that regulators look at where they can offer flexibility to ranchers in the area.

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“What we are seeing here is what happens when people start feeling desperate. I think it’s unfair that there wasn’t an opportunity or ability to find a workable solution that supported both the agriculture community and conservation goals at the same time without an action like this happening,” 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’s sold dozens of cows in recent months and plans to sell the majority. But with those cows goes something else too – a way of life. “I think it’s about done,” he said.

“If I have to sell all my cows, I’ll go somewhere else and do something else. I never thought I would have felt that way, I do now,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime.”