STOCKTON — Dozens of Central Valley farmers who were hoping a local judge would come to their aid and fend off sweeping state water restrictions imposed on some of California’s most senior water rights holders were dealt a blow Tuesday when the court declined to hear their case, citing a potential for “local prejudices.”
San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Carter P.
Holly, after three hours of arguments, honored a request by state water
officials to transfer the challenge to their conservation measures to a
less partial county. A new site has not been determined.
Although the case was filed on behalf of just 75 or
so growers, it could affect thousands of farmers, water districts and
communities whose supplies hinge on senior water rights. It is viewed as
a crucial test of the state’s power to manage water use during the
The bulk of Tuesday’s debate, which focused on just
how far the State Water Resources Control Board can go in its
conservation crackdown, won’t be ruled on since the case will be moved
before another judge. However, it provided a glimpse of the fight to
“The hearing exposed the state board’s flawed
thinking,” contended Jeanne Zolezzi, one of the attorneys representing
the irrigation district.
The district’s argument is that its century-old right
to draw water from the San Joaquin River predates the state’s
requirement for permits and cannot be compromised.
Since the river water is the district’s only supply,
all deliveries to the farmers in the area will cease under the state’s
directive. The suit estimates this will mean $800 million of crop losses
Farmers in attendance
Dennis Baker, who runs a hay business in Tracy, was
one of about 50 in the courtroom Tuesday who looked as if they would
rather be back at the farm with their dusty boots, work jeans and
Western hats. The issue was too important to ignore, however.
“I have like a cutting of hay left in the field. After that, there will be no more if they turn the water off,” Baker said.
Baker has been using extra fertilizer to make up for
the water shortage, but that won’t be enough to yield the usual three or
four harvests that ensure he can pay the bills each year.
The irrigation district was still delivering water to
Baker and other customers Tuesday, citing a one-week grace period after
receiving notice from the state to stop pumping. The district’s board
had not decided whether it would continue drawing water after the
Those who illegally pump face fines of $1,000 per day
plus $2,500 per acre-foot drawn. An acre-foot of water is enough to
supply one or two homes for a year.
The state water board contends there simply isn’t
enough water in California’s rivers and creeks to meet the demands of
all water rights holders. So, per the state’s system of seniority, cuts
need to be made by those with less senior rights.
Orders to stop pumping were issued earlier this year
to thousands with claims after 1914, the year that California began
granting permits for water draws. On June 12, the state water board took
the unusual step of extending the directive to senior rights holders
with claims back to 1903.
Only once before, during the drought of the late
1970s, has the state reached as deep into the hierarchy of water rights.
Those with claims older than 1903 can still draw water.
The Banta-Carbona Irrigation District staked its claim in 1911.
The curtailment applies across California’s biggest
farming regions: the Sacramento River watershed, the San Joaquin River
watershed and the delta.
State attorneys argued Tuesday that they have the
power to force water rights holders to stop pumping when those with more
senior rights are at risk of not getting their water.
“It’s the reality of the water shortage,” said attorney David Rose.
The heart of the dispute was over what legal
mechanism the state had to regulate water rights holders whose claims
precede California’s regulatory system.
Attorneys for the irrigation district held that
pre-1914 rights were simply off-limits, while state lawyers contended
that the water board’s authority rests on its legislative mandate to
protect California’s water supply.
The irrigation district also claimed that it hadn’t
been given the opportunity to protest before pumping restrictions were
issued, denying it due process. State attorneys said due process would
come when the state enforced the restrictions.
Drilling a new well
Not knowing what would happen with the district’s
water supply, grower Kris Thomsen, who attended Tuesday’s hearing, made
the decision to pay $230,000 to drill a new well on his property to
secure another source of water.
The well still needs a motor and pump, so he is not
sure yet how much groundwater he will have to irrigate his almond trees,
but he is hoping for the best.
“We’re not necessarily looking to get a bumper crop,” he said. “We just want to keep them alive.”
Similar suits to the one heard Tuesday also have
challenged the state’s authority to restrict senior water rights
holders. No others, though, have gone before a judge.
Among those filing suits are the Patterson Irrigation
District also along the San Joaquin River and a consortium of water
agencies that draw from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.
Several other irrigation districts have threatened legal action.
By Kurtis Alexander : San Francisco Chronicle staff writer