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Senior Water Rights Holders Take California Water Board To Court Over Drought Restrictions

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The fight over cutting California's oldest water rights is on its way to the courts after a group of Central California irrigation districts filed a flurry of lawsuits against the state on Friday.

Water rights here are viewed as property, something protected by the Constitution. The lawsuits set up a showdown that could shape the way all of California manages water the rest of this drought.

RELATED: California Water Cuts Leave City Days Away From Running Out Of Water

Jim McLeod, 86, has seen many of the harshest droughts come and go. The board president has been on the Banta-Carbona Irrigation District board for 53 years. He argues by cutting off his district's senior water rights, the state is breaking the law.

The State Water Resources Control Board ordered the district to stop taking water from the San Joaquin River immediately

"They're taking the water away from us when the water is there! The water is there," he said. "We're halfway through the season. It'll destroy those tomatoes out there; it'll destroy the walnuts on these trees."

The district was the first to file suit against the water board. The Patterson Irrigation District followed on Friday. Other districts, including South San Joaquin, Modesto, Turlock, Merced, the city and county of San Francisco and Oakdale filed a group lawsuit.

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

"To take property without a due process hearing from a state agency? That's just wrong," said Steve Knell, general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District.

He argues the state board ignored due process and doesn't have the legal right to ut California's pre-1914 water rights.

"They think despite having contributed nothing to this water resource, they can walk in and tell you to stop taking water," he said.

McLeod says jobs, crops and entire farms depend on a judge reversing the water board's cutbacks.

"If they have any brains it will be," he said. "They didn't follow the procedure; they didn't give us a hearing."

The state board says it doesn't respond to pending litigation until it files a response with the court.

The irrigations districts will also ask the courts for a stay, allowing them to continue taking water until the whole thing is sorted out.

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