In a potentially major setback for California’s efforts to handle the drought, a judge Friday blocked the state water board’s decision to curtail the water rights of four irrigation districts.
The judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing the State Water Resources Control Board from enforcing a curtailment order against the West Side Irrigation District, Central Delta Water Agency, South Delta Water Agency and Woods Irrigation Co. The judge said the four agencies were denied the right to defend themselves in front of the water board.
While the ruling affects only those four agencies, experts said the decision has statewide implications. It could affect “everybody that received a curtailment order,” said Stuart Somach, a Sacramento water-law attorney not involved in the case.
In recent weeks, the state water board has curtailed the rights of dozens of senior water rights holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, telling them they no longer can pull water out of rivers and streams. Those orders affect more than 1.2 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.
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Several agencies and water rights holders have sued, challenging the board’s authority. Now a judge has sided with four of them, at least temporarily, putting into limbo one of the state’s tools for clamping down on water use.
In a five-page ruling, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Shelleyanne Chang said the state board erred by curtailing the rights “without any sort of pre-deprivation hearing.”
A lawyer for one of the plaintiffs said the lack of due process was critical.
“The court is sending the state board a message that the water users have been trying to send for a few months,” said Jennifer Spaletta, a lawyer for the Central Delta agency. “Water rights are complicated. They cannot send out these broad orders.”
Somach said the state should have held “due process hearings to make sure there is no water available...None of that stuff happened.”
Tim Moran, a spokesman for the water board, said the agencies lawyers were reviewing the decision.