California may step up enforcement of water restrictions amid drought

SACRAMENTO, Calif., July 1 Tue Jul 1, 2014 5:56pm EDT

SACRAMENTO, Calif., July 1 (Reuters) - California may ratchet up enforcement of drought-related pumping restrictions in slow-moving creeks and lakes under new rules being considered on Tuesday, prompting worry among farmers as the state enters the dry summer season.

The widely anticipated move by the State Water Resources Control Board comes during worsening drought conditions and political gridlock that has stalled progress on efforts to raise money to build new reservoirs and other methods for storing water in the future.

"Immediate action is needed to effectively curtail diversions when water is not available," the proposed regulations read.

The proposals, the subject of a day-long hearing and a possible vote late on Tuesday, would require water districts, farmers and others whose right to pump water has been restricted to attest within a week they have stopped using water from affected streams, under penalty of perjury.

The rules also give water regulators the right to issue a cease-and-desist order against water rights holders suspected of illegally using water without going through the usual hearing process.

They drew opposition from farmers and winery operators, who worried the stepped-up enforcement would unfairly harm their businesses.

Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen, elected on Tuesday as the Republican leader in the State Assembly, urged the board to preserve access to water by the mainly agricultural interests who hold longtime rights to use it.

"Please remember that any infringement of these rights would be devastating to the agricultural economy of our state - and to the world," she wrote in a letter to the board on Tuesday.

California is in the third year of a catastrophic drought that has depleted the Sierra Nevada snow pack that normally feeds the state's rivers and streams with cool water.

Democratic Governor Jerry Brown declared the state's drought to be an emergency last January, committing millions to help stricken communities and temporarily easing protections for endangered fish to allow pumping from the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta.

As regulators debate new enforcement rules, lawmakers in the state are bogged down in negotiations over a plan to shore up California's water supply.

The proposal to sell $10.5 billion in bonds to pay for water projects has been mired in partisan bickering for months as Democrats and Republicans fight over what projects to include. Brown has urged lawmakers to cut the amount of money spent nearly in half, to $6 billion.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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