WASHINGTON (CN) — The United States wrought "devastating consequences" upon farmers in California's Central Valley when it took control of water meant for agriculture and residents and diverted it to other districts on the west side of the Central Valley, Fresno and 17 water districts claim in a $350 million federal lawsuit.
Fresno and the water district say the government gave them nothing after it took ownership of all of the water in the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project in 2014 to give to a group of contractors as "substitute water," according to the Oct. 5 complaint in the Court of Federal Claims.
According to reports in the Fresno Bee, in both 2014 and 2015 the Bureau of Reclamation sent water from the Friant Division to the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority, which invoked senior water rights. The authority - a conglomeration of water districts which deliver water to communities on the west side of the Central Valley - is not a party to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs include irrigation districts, a municipal water district and similar entities that serve a wide array of farmers from south of Merced to the mountains separating Southern California and the Central Valley. The farmers grow products from walnuts to wheat and rely on the Friant Division of the Central Valley Project for irrigation and groundwater.
The Friant Division includes the Friant Dam, the Friant-Kern Canal and the Madera Canal and sends water throughout the Central Valley.
The plaintiffs say the diversion left the area with "permanent and irreparable" damages and was an unconstitutional taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
"As a result of this appropriation, in 2014 plaintiffs and their landowners and water users suffered huge losses of annual and permanent crops, loss of groundwater reserves, water shortages and rationing and incurred millions of dollars to purchase emergency water supplies," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs say that though the government acquired water rights to the San Joaquin River and holds the water in trust, the water is the property of the landowners, and the government is only a "carrier and distributor."
"The United States holds legal title to such water and water rights for the benefit of plaintiffs, their landowners and water users," the complaint states. "The United States does not have the discretion or the right to use or reallocate that water as it might see fit."
The plaintiffs seek to recover the fair value of the water the government took, which they estimate at more than $350 million, plus interest.
Their attorney, Craig Parton, said the issue isn't just recovery of the fair value of the water, but correcting government misconduct.
"The issue of the damages is one thing," Parma said in an interview. "As significant as that is, to change the government's conduct going forward, that's really central to the clients, that we don't have this process repeated."
The Department of Justice declined comment.
The government has until Dec. 5 to respond.
Attorney Parton is with Price, Postel and Parma, in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Also representing the plaintiffs is Nancie Marzulla, in Washington, D.C.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.