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California Looks At Emergency Water Rules To Help Firefighting Efforts, May Impact Valuable Water Rights

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- The worst drought on record has turned every inch of the Golden State into a tinderbox.

State water administrators are looking at emergency regulations that may help firefighting efforts. The new rules could come at a cost to those who own valuable water rights.

Thanks to 19th century California water laws, and a creek running through his property, Lew Erickson of Santa Cruz holds some of the oldest water rights in the state.

The state water rights are complicated but based on a priority system.

Erickson grew up in Montana and said he knows the bad stuff that can happen when water gets scarce.

"I've seen some awful things happen in the '30s over water rights. People were shot over violating water rights", said Erickson.

But instead of a big gun - state water officials want to explore new emergency powers to help manage water during the drought..

The proposed rules (.pdf) allow the state to more quickly punish individuals and groups who are illegally diverting water.

And they also give the water board the power to exempt certain communities in desperate need for water: not just for drinking and sanitation, but to fight wildfires.

"The summer is a tinderbox," explained Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board.

She said to protect certain communities, the board is exploring whether some senior water rights holders like Erickson may have to curtail their water use.

"I don't think it's that people want to shut off their neighbors' tap, I think people genuinely want to help but they are concerned about their rights," explained Marcus.

The new emergency rules were debated for two days in Sacramento, in a room packed with concerned farmers, irrigation managers and lots of attorneys.

Speaker after speaker came to the podium to express their opinions on the proposals. Not everyone is happy. Some senior water rights holders feel they can't spare a drop.

"It's terrorizing. I mean I'm a fourth generation farmer and everything my family has worked hard for could be gone in a year," said Dino Del Carlo. Del Carlo owns a farming operation in Stockton and is very concerned about diverting any water from it.

"I'd like for them to look at other options" said Del Carlo. He believes there is more water in the system and that the state is working off of inaccurate information.

As for Erickson, he's hoping rain will put an end to the debate, saying most droughts won't last for more than 3 years.

"Who knows?  Mother Nature does its thing no matter what we want to do," remarked Erickson with a shrug and a tiny smile.

At the end of the day on Wednesday, the Board voted to approve the new regulation that allows water officials to move more quickly to punish those who are illegally diverting water. Many changes were made to the original draft and can be seen in their entirety here:

But for now, until they get more information, they won't make a decision on the health and safety exemptions for certain communities. Board members believe there is an effort by those with more senior rights to help those in the community who have less of a priority to that water. The board decided to see if those efforts would take care of the issue.

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