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San Francisco, irrigation districts sue California over drought-related water restrictions

  • San Francisco and a group of Central Valley irrigation districts are suing California for implementing drought restrictions that have blocked senior water holders from diverting water from rivers and creeks.
  • The lawsuit, filed in Fresno County Superior Court, argues that the California State Water Resources Control Board doesn't have the legal authority to require water holders to stop diverting water, even during a drought.
  • The state board orders come as California grapples with a record-breaking drought that has depleted reservoir levels and threatened water supplies.

Water flows in an irrigation ditch next to a farm in Modesto, California.Mario Tama | Getty Images

San Francisco and a group of Central Valley irrigation districts are suing the state of California for implementing drought restrictions that have blocked thousands of landowners and agricultural suppliers from removing water from rivers and creeks.

The city and a coalition of water agencies filed the lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court. The suit argues that the California State Water Resources Control Board doesn't have the legal authority to require senior water holders, including farmers and agricultural suppliers, to cease diverting water, even during a drought.

The fight comes as California grapples with a record-breaking drought that has depleted reservoir levels and threatened water supplies. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that more than 93% of the state is currently experiencing Severe to Exceptional Drought, and conditions are growing worse as the climate changes.

Similar fights could play out across the southwestern U.S. in coming years as water shortages mount. For instance, earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced plans to ration water from the Colorado River to Arizona and Nevada, paving the way for a battle with farmers and municipalities in those states.

In August, the state board ordered roughly 4,500 water right holders to halt water draws from rivers and canals that feed into the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is experiencing low water levels from the drought. The order was one of the most aggressive curtailments ever under the state's water rights system.

State officials had argued the orders would help preserve stored water to protect drinking water supplies, prevent salinity intrusion and protect the environment. The Delta watershed provides two thirds of the state with drinking water.

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