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California Farmers Worry Senior Water Rights Cuts In Drought Could Be Devastating

TRACY (CBS13) — California ordered dramatic cuts to farmers who have water rights dating back more than 100 years to help with the drought.

Notices have been sent to 114 senior rights holders, telling them to stop diverting water and to stop releasing previously stored water. Those who violate the order face fines up to $1,000 a day and $2,500 per acre-foot.

Those with water rights dating back before 1903, however, can continue to divert water.

The impacts will be felt far and wide, perhaps no harsher than an area near Tracy where farmers fear they could lose their farms, and thousands of homeowners are worried about being without water.

"It's gonna be a devastating thing," said farmer Paul Simoni with Simoni and Massoni Farms. "We got 125 employees who work for us. They're all gonna be out of work. We've got crops that are in the ground growing right now. If they cut off the water, they're gonna die."

He says with no water, he could lose everything he's worked so hard and so many decades to do.

"We've never had to rely on wells because we have pre-1914 rights that we were told could never be taken from us and here," he said. "This is a day from Hell."

He gets his water from the Byron Bethany Irrigation District west of Tracy, one of 114 senior water rights holders cut off on Friday by the State Water Resources Control Board.

"This is ridiculous," he said. "I mean if somebody would've said something March 1 we were gonna get curtailed, we never would've planted anything."

The impact could be widespread and devastating, with this district alone serving 160 farmers and 10,000 acres of farmland. The district warns of millions in crop losses and major job losses.

It's also the sole water provider for the 12,000 residents of Mountain House, where sprinklers were running on Friday and new homes were being built.

Now it's unclear where residents of the newly established community like Faraz Haider will get water.

"I honestly am loss for words, I cannot even comprehend what to do," he said.

Several newly curtailed senior water rights holders are threatening to sue the state, including the Oakdale Irrigation District, which said, "The water board is using a bulldozer when it needs a scalpel."

Simoni is concerned about the potential impact he could be facing.

"The biggest thing is my employees," he said. "What do I do with my 125 employees? It's not just the farm, it's gonna impact it's the whole community. This whole community is ag-related."

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