water in canal

As a parched postscript to a third straight year of drought, farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley who hold senior water rights are suing the state for deliveries they didn't receive in 2014, in hopes it will force the state to follow through on its commitments in the future.

The crux of the issue is who has been promised water for more than a century in some cases (farmers) versus who they say actually got it in 2014 (wildlife habitats, and the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego).

The suit was filed in late-October in Fresno County Superior Court by the Friant Water Authority, an advocacy group that represents farmers who irrigate 1 million acres in a 150-mile swath of the valley.

It seeks an official judicial review of "a nine-month series of unilateral and unlawful decisions by the executive director of the California State Water Resources Control Board." It contends the board repeatedly failed to follow state law and that its process failed to provide a hearing before depriving farmers of their water supplies.

A key part in that process was a first-ever "zero allocation" of water deliveries to the Friant Division of the State Water Project, a decision that Friant Water Authority attorney Jennifer Buckman told the Fresno Bee, "had the effect of putting birds on the refuges ahead of people in small east-side communities."

That decision had a domino effect in a big part of the valley. No irrigation water deliveries forced farmers to pump more and longer from their wells . . . which lowered the water table . . . which caused an estimated 600 shallower household wells to go dry.

"We can't be in this position again next year," Friant general manager Ron Jacobsma told the Fresno Bee. "Senior water rights have to be respected."

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