On Thursday, July 16th California water regulators ordered a group of farmers to stop pumping from a branch of the San Joaquin River amid an escalating battle over how much power the state has to protect waterways that are drying up in the drought.
The State Water Resources Control Board issued the cease and desist order against an irrigation district in California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley that it said had failed to obey a previous warning to stop pumping. Hefty fines could follow.
The action against the West Side Irrigation District in Tracy could be the first of many as farmers, cities and corporations dig in to protect water rights that were secured long ago and have remained exempt from mandatory restrictions.
“I’ve made investments as a farmer based on the rule of law,” said David Phippen, an almond grower in the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. “Now, somebody’s changing the law that we depend on.”
Even if the state is successful in its push for restrictions, it would face manpower and equipment challenges trying to ensure that farmers in remote rural areas don’t illegally divert water.
Meanwhile, courts must sort out whether the state has the power to tell farmers what they can do with water claimed before the government got involved.
Buzz Thompson, a water rights expert at Stanford Law School, expects California to prevail in the fight to curtail water use. He said courts have repeatedly recognized the state’s authority to prevent wasteful water use.
“It’s only when you get into a really serious drought that you finally face the question,” he said.