SACRAMENTO (CN) – In a setback to California’s efforts to enforce drought orders, a state court judge ruled Friday that water regulators can’t fine several Central Valley water districts for ignoring curtailment orders.
A Sacramento County Superior Court judge sided with four water districts, ruling the State Water Resources Control Board handed out water curtailments without giving them a chance to defend their water rights.
Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang issued a temporary restraining order preventing the water board from enforcing water-curtailment orders it issued against the petitioners dating back to May 1.
The complaint brought by the West Side Irrigation District challenges the water board’s authority to cut off water supplies to senior water rights holders. Similar lawsuits have been filed by water districts across the state, questioning the validity of the regulator’s curtailment orders.
Following Friday’s ruling, four judges have temporary ruled in favor of water districts. In June, the California Attorney General’s office testified in court that the curtailment orders issued to San Joaquin farmers were advisory and not compulsory.
While Chang’s order temporarily prevents the water board from enforcing the curtailment orders, regulators can still issue fines for other water violations.
“To be clear, [the water board and its staff] are free to exercise their statutory authority to enforce the water code as to any water user, including these petitioners, if it deems them to be in violation of any provisions of the water code, so long as the bases for said action are not the curtailment letters,” Chang wrote.
For the first time since 1977, the state has ordered senior water rights to stop diverting water from streams. The water board has issued curtailments to more than 9,000 water rights this year and has said more curtailments are expected throughout the summer months.
Friday’s ruling further muddies the state’s complicated water rights system and the regulator’s ability to enforce Gov. Jerry Brown’s drought orders. The next hearing is scheduled for July 30 in Sacramento Superior Court.
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