Modesto-area irrigation districts sue state over water restrictions

Modesto-area irrigation districts are suing the State Water Resources Control Board after the agency last week curtailed century-old water rights for some of them.

Attorneys representing the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts as well as the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority filed the lawsuit Friday in Stanislaus Superior Court. The authority consists of the Oakdale, South San Joaquin, Merced, Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and San Francisco, which owns and operates the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on the Tuolumne River in Yosemite National Park.

With California in a fourth year of a dismal drought, the water board announced June 12 that it was curtailing the rights of more than 100 senior rights holders in the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Those water rights predate the beginning of California’s permitting process in 1914, according to a news release from the agencies that filed Friday’s lawsuit.

The Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Merced districts were among those affected by the water board’s announcement. SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said the curtailment notice means the districts can use only the water they had stored in reservoirs but can’t have access to additional water flowing into the reservoirs. Those violating the notice face a penalty of $1,000 per day and a $2,500 for each acre foot of water diverted, according to the lawsuit.

District officials question whether the state has jurisdiction over the pre-1914 water rights. The state last week curtailed rights secured from 1903 to 1914.

“This is our water,” Oakdale Irrigation District General Manager Steve Knell said in the news release. “We believe firmly in that fact, and we are willing to take on the state bureaucracy to protect that right.”

Shields added that the state did not protect the districts’ due process rights by officially notifying them of its intention or provide them with the opportunity to speak at a hearing. Shields said he learned of the state’s decision when the water board held a news conference announcing the curtailments.

“The State Water Resources Control Board has a difficult challenge to manage a critically deficient water supply, but that challenge does not trump constitutional protections of due process and property rights,” Shields said in the news release.

He said the irrigation districts are asking that state not be able to proceed until the districts have been able to make their case in court.

Water board spokesman George Kostyrko said in an email that “we typically don’t comment on pending litigation. We typically will file a response first with the court, before commenting on our position.”

Last week was the first time since 1977 drought that the water board curtailed water rights predating 1914, when the current system was established. Districts with pre-1914 rights had been in better shape than others during the drought, though their farmers are seeing considerably less water than in better times.

The water board indicated last week that even older rights could be affected if conditions do not improve, including those held by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. MID officials are keeping a close eye on the situation.

“We are assessing the full scope of this action and any resulting impacts to MID,” spokeswoman Melissa Williams said in an email. “It’s doubtful that these curtailments will impact MID’s irrigation operations during the 2015 irrigation season.

“However, we’re concerned with senior water rights curtailments and the unquestionable impacts they will have on our region as we continue to struggle through this unprecedented fourth consecutive critically dry year. We will continue to defend our senior water rights for the benefit of the customers we serve.”

Kevin Valine: (209) 578-2316