East San Joaquin Valley growers are suing state water authorities over drought decisions, claiming east-side communities and farms got no federal water after the state illegally denied deliveries to a separate group of landowners with senior water rights.
The case was filed Friday in Fresno County Superior Court against the State Water Resources Control Board, which issued emergency orders this year to divide California’s drought-strained water supply. The decisions prevented east-siders from getting even a small amount of water, farm leaders say.
The Friant Water Authority, representing 15,000 growers who buy water from Millerton Lake and irrigate 1 million acres from Chowchilla to Bakersfield, is asking the court to prevent the scenario from happening again.
“We can’t be in this position again next year,” said Friant general manager Ron Jacobsma. “Senior water rights have to be respected.”
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Friant officials say the state board’s orders allowed the State Water Project and wildlife refuges to “leap-frog” over senior water rights holders on the Valley’s west side to get water. The west-siders are known as the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors, whose water rights date back to the 1800s.
As a result of the state’s decisions, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was forced to tap Millerton Lake to provide water for the historic-rights landowners, who farm 240,000 acres between Patterson and Mendota.
That left zero water for Friant farmers and more than a dozen cities that usually get water from Millerton. It was the first zero allocation since the federal Central Valley Project built Friant Dam more than six decades ago.
The state board has not yet been served with the lawsuit and cannot comment, a spokesman said.
Lawyer Jennifer Buckman, representing Friant, said the state’s orders had the effect of putting birds on the refuges ahead of people in small east-side communities such as Orange Cove, Terra Bella, Lindsay and Strathmore.
Water for federal refuge acreage near Los Banos is provided through a 1992 reform law, called the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. But farm water leaders say historic rights holders have the higher priority.
Buckman said wildlife in the Friant delivery area would have benefited from deliveries this year at water recharge basins.
Orange Cove and other cities were able to buy river water this year from different sources, but the cost was significantly higher than cities would normally have paid, Friant’s Jacobsma said.
He added that the zero allocation and drought forced farmers to run their groundwater wells more than usual. The pumping lowered the water table and many wells dried up in rural neighborhoods, Jacobsma said.
More than 1,000 people are living without indoor plumbing in East Porterville because their wells went dry. Tulare County officials say 600 wells have gone dry.
“If we had been able to get some water, it would have reduced the pressure on the groundwater table,” Jacobsma said.