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San Francisco sues California over drought-related water restrictions

Written by on September 9, 2021

San Francisco is suing its home state over drought-related water restrictions

Joined by a group of Central Valley irrigation districts, the northern California city filed the lawsuit late last week in Fresno County Superior Court, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. 


According to the paper, the suit claims that the State Water Resources Control Board lacks the authority to suspend the draws of senior water rights holders, including farmers and San Francisco itself.

Crippling drought has devastated much of the western U.S. this year, worsened by the impact of climate change, according to scientists. 

The U.S. Drought Monitor currently shows 93.88% of the West as in Moderate to Exceptional Drought. 

In July, officials warned of the “near-complete” loss of salmon in the Sacramento River and wildfires this season have spread quickly on parched earth.

A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. 

A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. 

A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. 
(AP Photo/Ethan Swope)

The order for 4,500 cities and farms to stop water draws came in August, in an attempt to manage dwindling water supplies.

State officials said the orders would help “to protect drinking water supplies, prevent salinity intrusion and minimize impacts to fisheries and the environment.”

“Curtailing water rights has an impact on livelihoods and economies, but it is painfully necessary as severe drought conditions this year and next could threaten health, safety and the environment,” Erik Ekdahl, Deputy Director of the Division of Water Rights, said in an August 20 release. “We will do everything we can to make compliance both straightforward and fair. We are offering reporting and technical assistance to all right holders and will also be regularly conducting inspections and investigating complaints to ensure that diverters are complying.” 

Reports detailed how the city of Mendocino and town of Teviston began to run out of water after scorching heat waves broke temperature records up and down the West Coast.


While many of those hit with the state’s orders have backup water sources – including San Francisco – others do not.

The lawsuit, filed by the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, argues that only the courts have jurisdiction over senior rights holders – who pre-dated the state water board’s first regulation of water draws in 1914 – and asserts that the board has both not proven a  need to make the cuts and not implemented them in a legal way.

Additionally, the group says the state does not have the ability to adequately measure water use.

The Modesto Bee reported Wednesday that two other suits were filed last week by other irrigation districts in and near Stanislaus County, claiming that the board exceeded its authority and stating that there was not enough opportunity to make their cases for continued diversions.

However, the state has some support on the decision. 

In a Wednesday release, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) wrote that San Francisco and other pre-1914 water rights holders were subject to the water board’s authority and said that the board’s curtailment order does not currently impact San Francisco.

“The current drought is highlighting many ways in which California’s water rights system is inequitable and poorly managed, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  While water users frequently claim they are exempt from the authority of the State Water Resources Control Board, the Courts have repeatedly rejected those arguments, confirming that the Board has significant authority over all water rights in California. However, all too often the Board is prevented from exercising that authority due to political pressure, and when the Board does act, water users file litigation to try to bully the Board so they can go back to over-exploiting California’s water resources for profit,” the nonprofit wrote.


“San Francisco’s lawsuit is particularly odd because the Board’s curtailment order does not currently affect San Francisco’s water supply.  That’s because the State Board’s curtailment order does not apply to water that San Francisco or other water rights holders have previously stored in reservoirs. As a result, although the water rights held by San Francisco, the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District, and other senior water rights holders are included on the list of water rights that are curtailed, their water use is currently unaffected by the curtailment order because they are diverting previously stored water (as this memo from the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District explains),” the organization added. 

“The State Water Board has ample legal authority to reform how our water rights system is implemented.  The challenge is in convincing the Governor’s office to allow them to use that authority,” the NRDC concluded.

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