San Francisco and other water districts sue California over drought restrictions

San Francisco and several Central Valley irrigation districts with water rights dating back more than a century are suing the state for forcing water restrictions, as California deals with a worsening drought.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month by the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, claims the State Water Resources Control Board does not have the authority to tell those with the most senior rights to water that they can’t draw it from the Bay-Delta reservoirs, rivers and streams, even in the case of drought.

San Francisco has rights dating back to the early 1900s, pre-dating the state’s oversight of water. The city and some other irrigation districts with first-dibs on California’s water say the state doesn’t have a way to properly measure water use and shouldn’t be setting limits, according to the suit.

Last month, the water board ordered 4,500 farms, landowners and public agencies to cut their water usage by suspending draws or face a fine of up to $10,000 a day.

"It’s important for the water board to be there as the cop on the beat to call balls and strikes," water attorney and former chair of the water board Felicia Marcus said. "From a logical, public policy perspective it makes perfect sense. From a historical, practice perspective there are still folks who hold true to the belief that no one should be able to touch them and that somehow magically it will all work out fairly."

The restrictions are aimed at protecting fish and wildlife in the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River Delta.

But the cutbacks will take a toll. Agriculture may suffer the most without water for field from Fresno to the Oregon border.

Cities like San Francisco have lots of water storage but don’t want to rely on that supply as its only source.

In a statement, the City Attorney’s Office spokesperson John Cote called the water board’s approach both "flawed" and "unlawful."

"Curtailing San Francisco’s senior water rights, while potentially letting junior water rights holders in other parts of the State off the hook, is contrary to longstanding California law and makes no sense," Cote wrote.

The State Water Resources Control Board would not comment on the lawsuit.

But there has been a long history of senior water rights holders challenging its authority. Many of those issues have yet to be settled.

However, this year, cut back among water rights holders have been much more calculated and planned.

Marcus said that gives the state good odds at winning the case, but most likely it won’t be heard or decided upon until long after this latest period of drought in California is past.

"I think if the water board is found unable to do this, I guarantee you there will be calls for legislation to change the system because there’s no system there," she said.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU