Why protesters say a new ordinance unfairly impacts Asian Americans in Siskiyou County

Bill Choy Skye Kinkade
Siskiyou Daily News

Should ranchers with agricultural wells be allowed to sell their water? What if it’s being trucked away to irrigate an illegal crop? Is it fair to stop the transport of water on certain roads if it negatively impacts, for the most part, a specific group of people?

These are the questions that hundreds of protesters were asking when they occupied a block of Yreka’s Fourth Street on Thursday morning. A majority of the protesters were of Asian descent and advocated for their right to water. Many asserted that the county’s latest ordinance, which prohibits water trucks on specific roads and highways, unfairly impacts Asian Americans living and farming in Siskiyou County.

On the other side of the issue, residents of the Big Springs area joined the protest to staunchly oppose the trucking of thousands of gallons of water from the aquifer. They worry that such activity could lead to their wells going dry and assert that illegal cannabis grows are negatively impacting the environment and say accusations of racism are clouding the real issue.

While the entire block was cordoned off by sheriff’s deputies and a group of law enforcement officers stood at the courthouse entrance, inside, a  demurrer on a civil case against a Big Springs area rancher who’s been accused of selling water for cannabis irrigation was being heard. Last year, the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors made it a public nuisance to pump water for illegal activities, but the ordinance did little to stop the trucks.

In the county’s latest attempt to curtail the transport of water, on Tuesday the supervisors approved an urgency ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to drive water trucks on specific roads where there’s an abundance of cannabis grows. Any truck that carries more than 100 gallons of water was immediately prohibited from traveling on specific routes in both the Butte Valley and Big Springs areas unless they had a valid permit, which were to be issued free of charge for those who had a valid agricultural errand.

‘Can’t shower in oil’

Hmong activists Sia Lo and David Thao served as spokesmen for Thursday’s protesters, many of whom do not speak English. Both said they’re not from Siskiyou County, but have relatives who live here and came to show their support.

“We just want to protect peoples’ rights,” said Lo, adding his opinion that what’s happening in Siskiyou County is unjust since it’s not been proven that all trucked water is being used to irrigate illegal crops.

“They can’t grow their vegetables or give water to their animals,” Lo said of those who depend on water trucks. He said the county’s new ordinance is hurting innocent people and alleged that some have been stopped in their water trucks and they vehicles have been unfairly impounded, even when there was no water inside.

Thao said as soon as the supervisors approved the ordinance Tuesday, law enforcement was out in force all over the Big Springs area by that afternoon.

Dry wells, angry neighbors:Big Springs residents protest water trucking for illegal marijuana grows

The penalty for driving a water truck on one of the specified roads is a $100 fine.

Thao said he’s talked to people in other areas of the county who have been growing marijuana for 30 years without any problems. He said those growers were white and added he’s personally experienced racism while visiting Siskiyou County in the past.

Thursday’s crowd was peaceful while people chanted slogans like “Stop Asian hate” and held up signs that said “We need water to live!” “Siskiyou Cops are Thieves,” “We live here in Siskiyou County, “Asian Lives Matter,” and “Can’t shower in oil.”

One sign said wells dry up due to many factors, “Depth, climate, and location,” and “Farmers that have water rights have the right to sell it as their own product.”

Protestors occupied a block of Fourth Street in front of the Siskiyou County Courthouse on Thursday morning, May 6, 2021. Protestors included residents who oppose the trucking of water from agricultural wells to irrigate illegal marijuana grows, and those residents who utilize the water. Inside the courthouse, a demurrer on a civil case against a Big Springs area rancher who’s been accused of selling water for cannabis irrigation – which is against a 2020 Siskiyou County ordinance – was being heard.

‘Something needs to be done to stop these illegal grows and cartels’

Yreka’s Louise Gliatto, who was standing by watching the protest with others, said she was upset by the scene and supports the county’s new ordinance. She said the majority of the protesters were unfairly characterizing the fight for water as a racial issue when “race has nothing to do with it.”

She said calling the ordinance racist is simply a diversion from the real issue – illegal growing of cannabis. And Gliatto worries that cartels are running the grows and are causing irreversible ecological damage.

 “This is hurting the community,” Gliatto said.

Yreka resident Steve Radford, who ran for a seat on the Yreka City Council in November of 2020, said the accusations of racism were “unfair and absolutely not the case.”

He said the issues stemming from illegal cannabis grows have blossomed over the past year.

“This is something that has been happening for way too long,” he said. “Something needs to be done to stop these illegal grows and cartels.”

Misdemeanors and ‘unintended consequences’

Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus said the penalty for driving a water truck on one of the specified roads is $100 and people can be charged with a misdemeanor the first time they violate the ordinance. In addition, vehicles can be impounded at the discretion of law enforcement, since they are the “instrumentality of a crime.”

“It’s just like if (the truck) was being used in any other crime, such as a DUI,” he said.

Andrus said he did not know how many citations have been issued, or how many water trucks have been impounded since Tuesday. Calls to Siskiyou County Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue were not immediately returned.

Related coverage:To curtail illegal cannabis grows, water trucks aren't allowed on these Siskiyou roads

Private investigator Ed Szendrey, who collected information for Big Springs area ranchers who have been accused of unlawfully selling their water, said the ordinance has some “unintended consequences,” including greater fire danger.

“The day the ordinance was enacted there was a fire in the Shasta Vista Subdivision,” said Szendrey. “The water truck drivers were not allowed to respond.”

The ordinance specifically states that it doesn’t restrict emergency vehicles.

“Another unintended consequence may possibly be many of the 4,000 people living in Shasta Vista who depend on the trucks for life-sustaining water could suffer,” Szendrey said in an email to the newspaper.

'They have a right to be upset'

Both Thao and Lo said they believe a compromise could be made if Siskiyou County officials would sit down with representatives of the local Hmong community. They said it’s upsetting that the supervisors’ decision was made so hastily, without hearing the farmers’ side of the story, which left them feeling marginalized.

“They are searching people and property who have not broken any laws,” Lo asserted.

“They have a right to be upset,” Thao said of the crowd. “They want to be treated like other Americans.”

If a compromise is not reached, Thao and Lo said they believe the protests will continue and more people will come to fight what they see as an injustice. 

Water trucks aren’t allowed on these roads

Roads where water trucks are now prohibited include the following: 

In Butte Valley

• Picard Road

• Matthews Road

• Redrock Road

• Meiss Lake-Sam’s Neck Road

• Richardson Road

• Meiss Lake Road (beginning with intersection of Cook-Campbell Road and continuing west)

• Dorris Tecnor Road (beginning at the intersection of Sheep Mountain Road then south)

• Sheep Mountain Road

In Big Springs

 • County Road A-12 (east of Big Springs Road between Big Springs Road and Highway 97)

• Big Springs Road

• Harry Cash Road