Cannabis Cultivators Win Round One in Water Rights Fight on Santa Ynez River

State Water Board Finds No Abdication of Responsibility

Marc Chytilo | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Late last summer, attorney Marc Chytilo delivered what he believed to be a serious haymaker aimed at the collective jaws of 22 of the 31 cannabis operators then drawing water from the Santa Ynez River. Chytilo, representing the Santa Barbara Coalition for Responsible Cannabis, filed an administrative action against the State Water Resources Control Board, charging that it had abdicated its legal responsibility to monitor or enforce state laws governing water extraction from the Santa Ynez River for purposes of cannabis cultivation. Earlier this month, that same state water board issued a finding decreeing that no abdication had, in fact, taken place because Chytilo had overstated his case and that the state water board did not, in fact, have the jurisdiction Chytilo had asserted. 

At issue is whether the water relied upon by the cannabis cultivators in question was pumped from what hydrogeologists define as “sub-surface streams”: streams that flow like an impenetrable straw under the floor of the river and are in no way fed by the waters flowing overhead. If the water were pumped from such streams, it would fall within the purview of the state water board. 

But according to Karen Kramer, environmental program manager for the state water board, none of the river alluvium Chytilo referenced in his complaint had officially been designated “a subterranean stream.” Until such a designation takes place, Kramer added, the monitoring and enforcement of water rights along the river is not a matter for the state board to adjudicate. 

According to Kramer, the water board staff and attorneys with its Office of Enforcement investigated Chytilo’s arguments — buttressed by an extensive report by a noted hydro-geologist — and found that no official designation had ever taken place. 

“As a result, we do not find any violation of state water law or policy,” she wrote. 

Wade Cowper, a spokesperson and strategist for the Coalition, said the organization “absolutely intends to keep pursuing the matter.” According to Cowper, the state water board’s decision acknowledged that some of the 22 cannabis operators were, in fact, improperly drawing water from the river, just maybe not all 22 that Chytilo initially alleged. 

“This is not the end of anything,” Cowper asserted. “We will continue to pursue our legal remedies.” 

The Santa Ynez River has been intensely adjudicated over the decades to ensure enough water is released each year from Lake Cachuma to keep the underground aquifers of downstream users replenished and to create a credible habitat opportunity for the federally endangered steelhead trout. 

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