California water regulators up enforcement powers

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California water regulators voted to give themselves tough new drought enforcement powers after learning that most water rights holders haven't responded to their orders to use less.

The State Water Resources Control Board met for nearly 12 hours over a two-day span before voting unanimously Wednesday to approve the emergency regulations that will be in effect for the next nine months.

The rules simplify and speed up the process the board can use to force some rights holders to stop diverting from rivers and streams, the Sacramento Bee reported (http://bit.ly/1mVCzEk ).

The board can impose fines of $500 a day for failure to comply, and curtailment "notices" can now be classified as "orders."

The previous regulations called for quasi-judicial hearings that could be drawn out for months or years before action was taken. Rights-holders can still request a hearing on the actions of the board, but the state now won't have to wait for hearings to be held to begin enforcement.

The move comes after the board learned that only 31 percent of the state's nearly 10,000 water-rights holders responded to curtailment notices in the past six weeks.

"Since we got a fairly poor showing, we felt we needed to amp up our enforcement capacity and make it a little quicker," board chairwoman Felicia Marcus said. "To show that we're serious."

The State Water Resources Control Board also is considering emergency water use regulations that would apply to urban water users such as cities. The board will discuss those plans at its July 15 meeting, board spokesman George Kostyrko said Thursday.

The new rules adopted Wednesday do not apply to so-called "senior" holders, those whose water rights were granted before 1914, though they may be made to provide more information on their use. Marcus said that because of a small enforcement staff, the board had to narrow the field of those affected.

Board members are appointed by the governor, who signed emergency drought legislation in March that allowed for the new rules.

"It's basically making sure that people only use the water to which they are entitled," Marcus said. "I think people want to comply with what they're asked to do. But they want to understand it, and they want it to be fair."

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Information from: The Sacramento Bee, http://www.sacbee.com

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