Water & Drought

Lawsuits challenge California’s drought plan

Irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch in the Sacramento Valley.
Irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch in the Sacramento Valley. Associated Press file

A group of water districts sued California regulators Friday over the state’s order prohibiting holders of some of the oldest water rights from pumping water out of rivers and streams.

The lawsuit, filed in Stanislaus Superior Court, challenges the State Water Resources Control Board’s decision last week to ban diversions by 114 different rights holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds.

The affected groups are senior water rights holders. That means they’ve held the right to divert water since before 1914, when California established its rights system. Last week’s decision by the water board marked the first time since the drought of 1977 that any senior rights have been curtailed.

“This is our water. We believe firmly in that fact, and we are willing to take on the state bureaucracy to protect that right,” said Steve Knell, general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District, in a prepared statement. Joining in the lawsuit was the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and an umbrella group called the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority.

Separate lawsuits were filed by the Patterson and Banta Carbona irrigation districts, according to officials with the water board.

The lawsuits are further evidence of the stress on the state’s water system in the fourth year of drought. As regulators order farmers and urban residents to cut water use, some are fighting back. The city of Riverside has sued over a state mandate that it cut water use by 28 percent. A group of State Water Project customers, including farm groups and the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, earlier this week filed a complaint with regulators alleging farmers in the Delta region are using water that isn’t rightfully theirs.

In the lawsuit over the senior rights, the plaintiffs say the water board overstepped its authority.

“There’s a question in our minds whether the state water board has jurisdiction over pre-1914 rights, period,” said Jeff Shields, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. “The state didn’t do any due process. They didn’t hold a hearing of any kind. The Constitution provides protections for private property, and there’s a due process that one has to go through to take that property.”

San Francisco is a member of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, a consortium whose members hold pre-1914 rights to draw water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. Those rights were cut off last week, according to the lawsuit.

But state water board officials made a point last week of saying that San Francisco’s rights remain intact – an apparent contradiction that raises questions about how the city is being treated.

George Kostyrko, a water board spokesman, and Andy Sawyer, the board’s assistant chief counsel, said they couldn’t comment on San Francisco’s situation.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for San Francisco’s city attorney, said, “San Francisco is not suing the State Water Resources Control Board. It’s the authority we are a member of” that filed suit. He declined to comment further.

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