By Leigh Martinez

SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY (CBS13) — A judge will rule whether the Banta-Carbona Irrigation District in Tracy can continue taking water from the San Joaquin River without getting fined.

Several water districts are suing the State Water Resources Control Board in different lawsuits claiming the state doesn’t have the right to restrict water usage of senior water rights holders.

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Banta-Carbona’s suit has come up first and its outcome could set a precedent for all other irrigation districts.

One June 12, the board ordered hundreds of farmers with century-old water rights to stop taking water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Farmers will be fined $1,000 a day if they don’t stop pumping water.

The water district’s attorney, Steve Herum, asked the judge to put a hold on the state’s orders while the case is being argued.

“The state has run over our rights without giving us a hearing. Since the state won’t deal with us, our only remedy is to go to a court and seek protection from the court,” he said.

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What’s at stake is authority over water. Senior water rights date back to the Gold Rush when it was the miners’ custom that the first person to take and divert water from the river had the superior or senior right to that water.

Farmers holding the rights say disputes over river water for irrigation have already been settled by farmers. Historically, a senior right farmer has the first right to use the water, then junior water rights holders take their share. If a senior right farmer suspects a junior right farmer is taking more than allocated, they can take them to civil court. The state is not involved.

But with California deep into the fourth year of its drought, the state says it must act now to protect water resources.

“That even pre-1914 users, users who have claimed under the rights derived from miners’ custom, that they may have to share in the burden with the rest of the state,” said Dep. Attorney General Clifford Lee, representing the water board.

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The board also made a request asking for a change of venue outside of the Central Valley, since the irrigation district operates there.