California lawmaker, water agencies reach deal on water-theft fines

By Camille von Kaenel | 06/06/2024 06:29 AM EDT

The bill would increase fines for those who illegally take water, but stop short of expanding the State Water Resources Control Board’s powers over decisions on water rights.

Water drips from a pipe into an irrigation channel.

The bill seeks to prevent a repetition of a now-infamous incident in 2022 when farmers in rural Northern California intentionally flouted a drought order knowing they would only receive minimal fines. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

SACRAMENTO, California — California Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan this week removed the most controversial parts of her bill to expand the state’s ability to fine illegal water diverters, resolving a yearslong fight with public water agencies and farmers.

What happened: After Monday’s amendments, Bauer-Kahan’s AB 460 (23R) would still increase the penalties for those who steal water or exceed their allotted share during times of drought. But it no longer expands the Water Resources Control Board’s overall power to investigate and punish what it sees as violations of water rights, which business and water groups said last year would have robbed them of due process.

Water users have already begun dropping their opposition. The East Bay Municipal Water District; the Valley Ag Water Coalition, which represents irrigation districts in the Central Valley; and a half-dozen smaller water utilities and irrigation districts from across the state said the amendments addressed their concerns in letters to Bauer-Kahan on Tuesday that her office provided to POLITICO.


More groups are likely to confirm they are removing their opposition by the end of the week, according to their representatives. POLITICO agreed not to name the groups because they hadn’t yet formally told Bauer-Kahan.