FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A group of California farmers says they face financial ruin under orders to stop pumping river water to irrigate their crops this summer amid the state’s relentless drought, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The Banta-Carbona Irrigation District in Tracy wants a judge to suspend the curtailment order issued by the state Water Resources Control Board last week. The order stops pumping for 114 water users who hold some of the strongest water rights in one of the country’s prime farming regions.
“The water board has simply exceeded its jurisdiction in its eagerness to control all water in the state,” said Jeanne Zolezzi, Banta-Carbona’s attorney. “It’s overreaching. They feel like they have to do something or be criticized.”
In its fourth year of drought, California residents and businesses statewide are required to reduce their water use by 25 percent.
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The state on Friday issued a round of historic orders, called curtailments, hitting water users with senior water rights that date back to 1914 and earlier. They have some of the most iron-clad access to the state’s rivers. It’s the first time since a 1977 drought that California has directed a significant number of senior water rights holders to stop pumping.
State water board spokesman George Kostyrko declined to comment on the lawsuit. The board’s chair, Felicia Marcus, has said she welcomes litigation to settle longstanding questions over the board’s powers.
Zolezzi said California’s water rights system is designed to be self-regulating, so water users file complaints against one another. Their disputes are to be settled in court, she said, adding that state water board doesn’t have the role it is now asserting.
The board’s order also comes with devastating fines of $22 million a month for Banta-Carbona if it continues pumping, or $800 million in lost orchards and vineyards if farmers within the district comply and let their crops wither and die, Zolezzi said.
The state rejected Banta-Carbona’s offer to reduce its water use by 35 percent, Zolezzi said. Banta-Carbona represents a fraction of the water users who received curtailment orders, but more lawsuits from other irrigation districts are expected to follow.