A judge ruled Friday that California regulators violated some farmers' rights by telling them to stop diverting from rivers and streams, but the state says it can still punish those who illegally take water during the drought.
The temporary restraining order by Sacramento Superior Court Shelleyanne Chang blocks the state from punishing farmers who ignored a state notice issued earlier this year to immediately stop diverting water. The ruling only applies to dozens of farmers in the Central Valley and the irrigation districts serving them.
The two sides had divergent views of what the ruling meant, with attorneys for the farmers suggesting it had sweeping implications for the state's regulatory authority, while the state said it only meant it needed to tweak its notices.
Residents, farmers and businesses across California have endured water restrictions because of the state's four-year dry spell. Those cutbacks include notices by the State Water Resources Control Board that rivers and streams are running too dry to provide water entitled to them.
Thousands have received these so-called curtailment notices in the last year, but only about a third responded to confirm they stopped taking water. The judge ruled Friday that the water board's notices improperly told districts and land owners with water rights to stop taking water without holding a hearing first.
The ruling bars the state from fining people who don't fill out paperwork responding to notices, but regulators can still target them for investigations of illegal water diversions. Penalties are as high as $1,000 a day and $2,500 per acre-foot of water illegally taken.
Attorneys for water rights holders say the ruling throws all the state's cutbacks into question.
"The practical implication is that the court has reminded the state board that water rights are a form of property rights, and they have to use a lot more care when they are trying to regulate them," said Jennifer Spaletta, an attorney for the Central Delta Water Agency which represented dozens of farmers with water rights.
The State Water Resources Control Board says the ruling may require it to tweak its notice letters, but still allows it to punish those who illegally take water.
"As it keeps getting drier as summer goes on, the notices have to go out to more and more people, but the judge only took umbrage with some of the language," said David Rose, an attorney with the water board.
Rose says the board will hold hearings before it issues any penalties for illegal diversions. Stuart Somach, a Sacramento-based attorney whose firm has a separate challenge to the board's orders, says the board faces long-drawn out challenges that will result in little water savings.
"If the goal is to address drought and water, it will do very little," said Somach.