SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California regulators on Monday proposed a first-of-its-kind, $1.5 million fine for a group of Central Valley farmers accused of illegally taking water during the drought.
It would be the first such fine for holders of California's oldest claims to water.
The State Water Resources Control Board said the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District in Tracy illegally took water from a pumping plant even after it was warned there wasn't enough water legally available.
The move by the board was the first against an individual or district with claims to water that are more than a century-old, known as senior water rights holders.
The action reflects the rising severity of California's four-year drought that has prompted the state to demand cutbacks from those historically sheltered from mandatory conservation.
The Byron-Bethany district serves farmers in three counties in the agriculture-rich Central Valley and a residential community of 12,000 people relying on water rights dating to 1914.
District general manager Rick Gilmore said he did not know a penalty was coming and wasn't aware of the details.
"Perhaps the state water resources control board is not taking into account we purchased supplemental supplies," he said.
The district has sued the state over the board's June warning to immediately stop taking water because the watershed was running too dry to meet demand. The board has sent out more than 9,000 notices across parched California warning there wasn't enough water entitled under rights.
The water board issued a cease-and-desist order last week against the West Side Irrigation District, also in Tracy, to immediately stop taking water. That district also had filed a lawsuit challenging the board's cuts, but the state denies it's retaliating against the agency.
Courts have not yet settled the question of whether the board has authority to demand cutbacks from farmers, cities and individuals with California's oldest claims to water.