California irrigator faces record $1.5 million fine for breaking drought restrictions
'Water irrigation pipes in the dry Southern California farmland' (Shutterstock)

State regulators on Monday proposed a record $1.5 million fine against a northern California irrigation district accused of defying emergency drought restrictions by continuing to draw surface water placed off-limits for such diversions.

The penalty, if approved by the state Water Resources Control Board, would be largest ever levied against a water user for an alleged unauthorized diversion during a drought, agency officials said.

It also marks the first such enforcement action facing any of California's "senior water rights" holders, those dating to between 1903 and 1914, in connection with the latest drought, now in its fourth year.

The target of the proposed penalty is the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, which supplies water to 160 agricultural customers occupying some 12,000 acres (49 square kilometers) of farmland about 50 miles (80 km) east of San Francisco Bay.

Much of the district consists of cattle ranches, alfalfa growers and vineyards. It also provides drinking water for about 15,000 people living in the nearby community of Mountain House.

The water board accused Byron-Bethany of violating a June 12 curtailment notice to more than 100 senior rights holders in the Sacramento and Jan Joaquin River Delta declaring supplies no longer sufficient to allow them further diversions.

According to the board's complaint, the district kept drawing delta water from an intake channel for nearly two weeks after that, a diversion exceeding 2,000 acre feet - enough to meet the drinking needs of about 16,000 people.

In doing so, Byron-Bethany avoided having to pay the $500,000 it would have otherwise cost to purchase the same amount of water elsewhere, based on going rates paid by other districts, the board said.

Under new penalties enacted last year, unauthorized diversions carry fines of up to $1,000 a day, plus $2,500 for every acre foot taken, a formula under which Byron-Bethany could face over $5 million in liability, board officials said.

However, the agency staff recommended a penalty of $1.5 million, which the board can decide to accept, reduce or raise.

The irrigation district has 20 days to request a hearing challenging the penalty, and could appeal any final board decision to the courts.

The curtailment notice itself, the first to extend to senior rights holders since a drought in the 1970s, is already under legal challenge by a number of parties, including Byron-Bethany, which had no immediate comment on the proposed penalty.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Eric Walsh)