By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - A water agency serving family farms in California's San Joaquin Valley breadbasket has sued the state over recent rules that demand cutbacks by farmers and others despite old and generally protected legal rights to pump from local rivers.
The lawsuit by the utility, Banta-Carbona Irrigation District, said water regulators did not follow the law when they ordered them to stop pumping from the San Joaquin River last week, putting the district and the 70 to 80 family farms that depend on it for irrigation at financial risk.
Last week, the State Water Resources Control Board curtailed longstanding water rights for the Banta-Carbona District and about 100 other agencies and rights holders, saying too much pumping was endangering the fragile San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta amid years of catastrophic drought.
It was the first time in 40 years that the state has moved to curtail the water rights of farmers and agencies whose claims date back before 1914, a group that is usually protected by their long-standing water rights.
Instead, the state said that, until further notice, only those whose rights to pump in the rivers that feed the delta predate 1903 would be allowed to take water out this year.
David Weisenberger, general manager of the Banta-Carbona Irrigation District, said his customers have about half of their acreage planted in permanent crops such as walnuts, almonds, olives and cherries. Unlike fields with annual plants that can be fallowed in a dry year, orchards have to be watered year in and year out or they will die, he said.
In ordering the district to stop pumping, state regulators did not show that others would be harmed if pumping continued, Weisenberger said.
"We believe there is enough water in the river for us to appropriate without hurting anyone," he said.
California is in the fourth year of a catastrophic drought that has led the state to issue its first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water use. Cities and towns are required to reduce their water use by 25 percent statewide in a complicated system of regulation in which some communities have to cut back by 36 percent and others as little as 4 percent.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler)