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SSJID sues state over water rights

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POSTED June 20, 2015 1:34 a.m.

South San Joaquin Irrigation District is one of five irrigation districts along with San Francisco that have filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s authority to curtail their century-old water rights.

The lawsuit filing in Stanislaus County Superior Court came Friday as Bryon Bethany Irrigation District officials served notice to the Mountain House Community Services District that they would stop sending water to the community of 10,000 people northwest of Tracy to comply with the state curtailment order.

SSJID, which had been working with Mountain House to see if the district could cover a projected shortfall of water later this year, informed the communities service district last week that the curtailment order was issued meant they would not be able to help the community keep water flowing through their taps.

Bryon Bethany Rick Gilmore noted the curtailment order expressly states that there is “no exception for public health and safety.” Not having water would imperil both in Mountain House.

Attorneys for the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority – a group made up of the South San Joaquin, Oakdale, Modesto, Turlock and Merced irrigation districts, and San Francisco – are suing the State Water Resources Control Board. 

The water board on June 12 issued drought-related curtailment notices to SSJID and more than 100 other “senior” rights holders whose claims on water pre-date the beginning of California’s permitting process in 1914.

While the order won’t impact the reduced water deliveries SSJID has committed to farmers as well as the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy this year, it would have major consequences next year save for even older rights the district has for inflow to Donnells Reservoir that date back to 1853. The state could also suspend those rights eventually.

“The State Water Resources Control Board has a difficult challenge to manage a critically deficient water supply, but that challenge does not trump constitutional protections of due process and property rights,” said Jeff Shields, SSJID’s general manager.

The SSJID’s issues with the state order impacting water rights secured between 1903 and 1914 include:

• SSJID property owners bought the water rights before 1914 when the state had no jurisdiction. The order essentially establishes jurisdiction 111 years after the fact.

• The state is essentially seizing water rights without due process.

• No one has filed a complaint that SSJID is violating their superior water rights. Actually, no such water rights exist on the Stanislaus River older than those held by SSJID and the OID.

“This is our water,” said OID General Manager Steve Knell. “We believe firmly in that fact and we are willing to take on the state bureaucracy to protect that right.”

Peter Rietkerk of the Patterson Irrigation District said the walnut and almond orchards of growers could wither and die, costing them $500 million.

George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the state Water Resources Control Board, declined to comment, saying the agency will respond in court.

California is enduring its driest four-year period in recorded history. The water board action marked the first time since a 1977 drought that California has directed a significant number of senior water rights holders to stop pumping.

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