California regulators violated the rights of a number of farmers by demanding mandatory water cutbacks without giving them a proper hearing, a state judge ruled on yesterday.
California, was in the fourth year of a catastrophic drought that had cost its farm sector billions, triggered the state's first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water use.
Sacramento Superior Court judge Shelleyanne Chang issuing a temporary order restrained the state from punishing four Central Valley districts, which included dozens of farmers, for disregarding curtailment orders imposed to help conserve water, according to court records.
According to Chang, the State Water Resources Control Board had violated the rights of farmers by ordering them to stop pumping from rivers and streams, to which they held long-standing rights, without a "pre-deprivation hearing."
According to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, the order could hinder the efforts of regulators to enforce water curtailment rules set this year for over 9,000 holders of water rights, among them farmers growing crops such as olives, almonds, and cherries.
This comes as the first time in 40 years the state had moved to curtail the water rights of farmers and agencies whose claims dated from before 1914, a group that was usually protected by their long-standing water rights.
Although the order on Friday covered only the four districts, the ruling could set a precedent and affect "everybody that received a curtailment order," Sacramento water law according to attorney Stuart Somach who spoke to the paper.
The water board added it was reviewing the court order, but the ruling made clear regulators would still be able to punish violators of the water code or illegal users of water.
"The Curtailment Letters ... result in a taking of Petitioners' property rights without a pre-deprivation hearing, in violation of Petitioners' Due Process Rights," Chang wrote.
The State Water Resources Control Board had issued thousands of curtailment letters this year, telling junior and some senior rights holders that they needed to stop diverting supplies from drought-starved rivers and streams as there was not enough water to meet all their demands.
A number of irrigators had responded with lawsuits, contending, among other things, that before the state board halted diversions, it need to hold hearings in which the rights holders could contest the need for curtailments.
According to the state board, the curtailment letters were technically notices, not orders: Only if the districts continued to withdraw water would the board issue enforcement orders, subjecting violators to steep fines or possible court prosecution.