Judge in drought-hit California blocks water cut orders for some farmers
Dry ground and drought conditions in an cornfield (Shutterstock)

California regulators violated the rights of some farmers by demanding mandatory water cutbacks without giving them a prior hearing, a state judge ruled on Friday.

California is in the fourth year of a catastrophic drought that has cost its farm sector billions, and prompted the state's first-ever mandatory cutbacks in urban water use.

Sacramento Superior Court Shelleyanne Chang issued a temporary order restraining the state from punishing four Central Valley districts, which includes dozens of farmers, for disregarding curtailment orders imposed to help conserve water, court records show.

Chang found the State Water Resources Control Board had violated their rights by ordering them to stop pumping from rivers and streams, to which they hold longstanding rights, without a "pre-deprivation hearing."

The order could hinder regulators' efforts to enforce water curtailment rules set this year for more than 9,000 holders of water rights, among them farmers growing crops such as olives, almonds, and cherries, the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported.

It was the first time in 40 years the state had moved to curtail the water rights of farmers and agencies whose claims date from before 1914, a group that is usually protected by their long-standing water rights.

Although Friday's order covers only the four districts, the ruling could set a precedent and affect "everybody that received a curtailment order," Sacramento water law attorney Stuart Somach told the paper.

The water board said it was reviewing the court order, but the ruling made clear regulators were still able to punish violators of the water code or illegal users of water.

Under the new rules, cities and towns must cut water use by a quarter, in a complicated regulatory system that requires some communities to cut back use by 36 percent but others as little as 4 percent.

"The Court has provided an opportunity for additional briefing on these issues, with a further hearing on the matter," the board said in a statement.

Unauthorized diversions during the drought emergency can attract enhanced penalties of up to $1,000 per day and $2,500 per acre-foot of water diverted.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)